Editor’s Note: Today’s post, which focuses on racism in scholarly publishing, is being published anonymously at the request of the authors and contributors — all people of color — whose testimonies make powerful and shameful reading for a sector that likes to think of itself as liberal and inclusive.
This blog post is co-edited by two people of color who work in scholarly publishing. Together, we have nearly 15 years of experience in this industry. As the idea for the blog post came together, we knew that sharing our stories needed to be done anonymously.
Yet we are eager to have our stories heard. Most micro-aggressions we experience pass without comment. We remain silent. And so do our allies. It is hard to speak up when you are alone in a white-dominated space. We hope that other people of color in our industry read this post and understand that they are not alone. We also hope that our allies will understand that they must do more if they want to claim that label.
The stories below came to us from across a range of departments and presses. We collected more stories than could fit into one blog post, so we will be submitting additional blog posts to the Scholarly Kitchen. Several new contributors have already agreed to share stories and we welcome additional contributions. Please contact our host, Alice Meadows, for more information on how to connect with us.
Years ago, during my then press’s annual Thanksgiving celebration, one entirely white department came in to great fanfare dressed as “Native-Americans” for “fun.” Obviously, I can’t speak to how all of my other colleagues felt, though some were clearly amused and delighted by it, but I do remember that I and the one other person of color on staff immediately made eye contact with each other with a look of total dismay.
I was the only person of color in my department. When I asked the administration why they didn’t do outreach to more students of color or promote people of color, the answer from the HR rep was, “We can never find any black students who are qualified or are able to pass our proofreading tests. You were our first and we were really surprised when you passed. Usually people like you don’t make it past the first round. And since there are so few to begin with, there aren’t any to promote.”
I left six months later.
During my second year as an editorial assistant I asked our Editorial Director if I could attend the AAUP (now AUP) annual meeting. I suggested that I could apply for two grants to help cover the costs of attendance, the newcomer grant and the diversity grant. At that time, I was the only person of color in my department and another assistant also wanted to attend the conference. Our Editorial Director asked me to limit my applications to the the diversity grant so that my white colleague would have a better chance at the newcomer grant. He proceeded to explain that there were almost no minorities who attended the AAUP so I was practically guaranteed to receive the diversity grant. Angry and hurt that I was being reduced to my brown skin, I went back to my office. A few days later, I explained to him that I would prefer to apply to both since I qualified for both grants. I received the newcomer grant that year, and a different person of color received the diversity grant; I was glad to have been there to meet her.
As the only black person in my department, my supervisor once told me: “I just want to let you know that I like you. You’re not like the others…in the Mailroom, and IT, and Security. You don’t blast your music, talk loud, and leave early. I see you reading books and bringing your own lunch…I just think that’s really good…Keep it up. You might even get to move up a bit.”
I feel real anxiety when there is another man of the same ethnic background in the same room as me because there’s a decent chance that someone will mix us up, usually by calling one of us by the other’s name…I have had to deal with the same type of lazy mistake for my whole life. The incessant noise (even at low volumes) of discrimination and lazy assumptions is something that adds up over time to remind me of my otherness.
Over the course of the time that I have been at the Press, I have heard all sorts of offensive “jokes” made at staff meetings: from making light of the devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico, to joking about how a book on the DREAM Act needs to come out fast otherwise “everyone will be deported by then,” to the outright and casual usage of a racial slur. Because of the frequency of these jokes, the fact that they are consistently made by upper management (which is all white), and because I am one of few people of color in the room when these jokes are made, I am extremely tense and uncomfortable during weekly meetings with my white colleagues. Every time I walk into a meeting with my colleagues, the pit of my stomach hollows from anxiety; I’m in a constant state of defense, ready for something to be said that is offensive. I’m ready to swallow my own anger and stay silent in the name of “professionalism,” ready to be disappointed by my white colleagues and managers who regularly disregard this type of behavior as “harmless” or don’t even notice it as problematic in the first place.
I was on a business trip with my boss and it was the first time that the two of us had spent significant time together away from the office. During the last night of the trip, we talked about personal stuff over dinner. I was sharing stories about my family when she suddenly said with a laugh, “I wasn’t sure what you were when you came for the interview. You don’t look like any of the African Americans from where I come from.”
I’ve heard ignorant comments like this before but this was said by a relatively young woman who always made it known that she was a liberal feminist. I don’t remember exactly how I responded. I think I said something along the lines of, “like white people, black people come in all forms and shades,” and left it at that. I had no desire to dive into an in-depth conversation about race. It would have been a waste of time.
Working at a university press as an Asian American woman of color has been an experience of whiplash — pulled in one direction where my opinion has been valued to “authenticate” a project by or about Asian Americans, while simultaneously pulled in the other direction, having my opinion discounted and written off by my white colleagues. “Well, you’re not really Asian.”
I’ve been asked how to pronounce names of authors who are of Asian descent — but then told that they disbelieve my pronunciation is authentic. “What good are you?”
I’ve been asked my opinion on how to bring diversity into our staff — but then told that the lightness of my skin tone is a strike against me. “You don’t really count.”
I’ve been asked to communicate difficult conversations about race with authors of color — “they’ll take it better coming from you” — but then told I should call myself an ‘Americanized’ version of my name when dealing with authors who are white. “You should make it less difficult for them.”
I have been tokenized when it is convenient. I have been dismissed when my opinion might make waves. I have been split in two and torn apart inside by this industry — one that supposedly values the intellectual input — and output — of scholars who write about race, justice, and inclusion.
I was the only Black employee in the books editorial department, and one of very few people of color. This would not have been so striking had the majority of books we published not been about Black and Brown culture and perspective. Walking into this position, I understood the violent legacy of white people controlling the means of production, and thirsting to curate and cosign intellectual and creative work by people of color. This was not my first rodeo in terms of working within a majority white office with a “liberal agenda;” i.e., working alongside white people who were sure they were “good.” What offered me more hope for this office was the depth of much of the work by Black authors they published. It was work that I had read in my undergrad years and beyond, that truly shaped my theories of self and the possibilities I saw for my own Black Life. I thought to myself, there’s no way that even the white people reading, editing, and probing these works aren’t grasping the brilliance, and at the very least, the humanity of the people who produce this work. How could you spend months, and sometimes years, with a manuscript about history or theory regarding Black life, and not be in some way changed by it? But alas….
I witnessed the head acquisition editor be repeatedly disrespectful to the women in editorial who did most of the grunt work. I was often tokenized, and called on to affirm a white editor’s opinion of a Black manuscript. My supervisor condescendingly micromanaged all of my activity every single day, while simultaneously trying to appear “down,” by asking me my opinions about various facets of Black popular culture, often using black vernacular. Knowing that my colleagues saw only my blackness — and not my complete humanity — led me to be more detached at work. I didn’t mind that people didn’t know how to talk to me because I didn’t want to talk to them.
Editors took many non-black interns under their wing, and they were given numerous opportunities to rise up in the press. Black interns, on the other hand, were heavily micromanaged and there was little interest in bonding with them or making them feel at home. I saw several white interns elevated to permanent positions. This is something I never saw offered as a possibility to Black interns. I did my best to provide some sense of belonging to the Black interns when I could; but honestly, how could I provide a feeling of belonging if it was something I never felt there myself?
Hands down the most painful, bizarre situation I’ve faced as a POC in scholarly publishing occurred when I was pitted against another POC, in a similar role, by leadership. Despite our divergent interests and skills, unhelpful comparisons – overt and covert – were made. Eventually, in spite of my best efforts, and my expressed desires to work more collaboratively, I felt forced out and had to leave. Afterwards, a supervisor got in touch to ask how the house might improve its diversity efforts, and to casually ask if I had contact information for potential authors of color.
I consistently find a self-serving equation of “diversity” (an outcome) with “antiracism” (a practice) in our industry. Generally speaking, the appearance of progress and harmony stands in for difficult, never-ending work, and ultimately, the relinquishment of privileges.
Instead of diversity™, scholarly publishing needs decolonization – a complete, utter rethinking and remapping of power relationships. This means white people in the profession — including well-intentioned liberal whites, self-identified woke whites and well-meaning white allies — have a great deal of humbling and challenging work to do. Are you up to it?
Stay tuned for our next installment of testimonies of people of color in publishing. In the meantime, please feel free to take a look at the following resources available for white colleagues who may be interested in learning more about what you can do:
Organizations that guide individuals and institutions in anti-racism work: