Insisting on Race, Ethnicity, and Gender: Reflections of a Latina Scholar (Who Is Also a Professor of Spanish)

In her recent On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Sara Ahmed concludes her reflections on dealing with the challenges of creating diversity in European universities with the image of a brick wall as a metaphor for institutional inertia. She exhorts scholars to continue “insisting” that our institutions need to be transformed (26, 173–87). In the United States, engaged minority scholars have been insisting on diversity, collectively, for almost half a century. Yet the numbers continue to be dismal. The MLA’s Data on Humanities Doctorate Recipients and Faculty Members by Race and Ethnicity reveals that there has been little gain in the number of scholars of color in our fields and departments. As regards United States Latinos/as, the focus of this essay, only 4.4% of faculty members in the humanities are Hispanic (Data, table 6), while Latinos/as constitute nearly 17% of our nation’s population and are the majority minority in this nation (“People QuickFacts”). (Hispanic is the official term created by the federal government for census purposes, yet I use Latino/a throughout this essay.) There are different preferences in how to label this identity, but Latino/a has been consistently embraced by academics to name the field: Latino/a studies. While both Hispanic and Latino/a are umbrella terms and tend to homogenize what is a most heterogeneous community racially, socioeconomically, nationally, and in terms of migration history, Latino/a has become more relevant in reference to social encounters and transculturations among various national groups of Latin American descent in the United States. (Recently some scholars have argued that it is used as a racial label, although Latinos/as in the United States are a multiracial community.)1 This significant and increasing gap between our presence as professors and the demographic changes nationwide augur a widening schism between faculty members and students, an emerging academic divide of sorts. As the MLA report indicates, “[I]t is dispiriting to see that, after years of effort to improve the pipeline for doctorates of color, the cohorts of several groups remain out of proportion to the United States population” (Data 3). A report by Arthur Coleman and others shows that, in the context of the demographic shifts in United States schools, “minority students will account for practically all of the growth among high school graduates over the next decade, with Hispanic graduates alone almost completely offsetting the decrease in white, non-Hispanic graduates” (4).

The implications of the divide between population numbers and representation in academia are serious and even dangerous. Despite the growth of students of color nationwide, our humanities departments continue to be overwhelmingly white. While there are strong efforts nationwide at diversifying the STEM fields, the humanities are being neglected, partly because administrators assume that they are already diverse. The data celebrate Hispanic studies units as diverse locations on campus but do not distinguish among Latinos/as as United States racial minorities, other United States–based Latin Americanists, and Spaniards. Those of us who have taught or studied in Spanish departments know firsthand the intense power struggles at play in them. Latino/a graduate students and faculty members, when there are any, usually reside in the lower echelon of the hierarchy.

The academic divide suggests a lack of mentoring; very few, if any, role models; and a curriculum that does not reflect the lives and experiences of Latino/a students. It is true that individual nonminority faculty members can have and have had significant influence on the academic careers of students of color, but it is also true that whiteness in departments and disciplines continues to cement institutional racism. When policies are created, rules are imposed, and norms are established, the needs and interests of students of color (and faculty members of color) will not be considered, let alone addressed. For instance, in a predominantly white department, it is difficult for undergraduate students of color to have access to role models who will exhort them to consider completing a PhD in the humanities. Students of color may be stigmatized for their writing styles, hybrid linguistic practices, and bicultural or working-class perspectives that are censored or curtailed in their writing assignments. The students thus receive lower grades and end up with a less competitive academic standing. Required readings and topics in course syllabi may not reflect the racial, ethnic, class, or gender experiences of many of the students, thus limiting their ability to identify with the course material. These practices of marginalization can limit the motivation of minority students who enter the humanities. Such students may feel that they are “space invaders” in the literature classroom (Puwar, qtd. in Ahmed 13), or they may perceive humanities courses as merely another category in the distribution requirements for graduation rather than as entryways to a possible career.

The data offered by the MLA report on the humanities exhort us to reflect once again on our historical moment, on the factors that impede the growth of faculty members of color in our fields, and on how institutional policies and resources can open up our disciplines and universities to transformation. The semantic shifts of the term diversity, since it began circulating in institutional discourse in the 1980s, have redefined the term away from race, ethnicity, and gender subordination to include all forms of difference, including intellectual and emotional. Many universities have reframed diversity as intellectual heterogeneity, which is more easily associated with institutional excellence. I have heard discussions in diversity committees in which courses about emotional intelligence are being considered to satisfy the diversity requirement. Moreover, racial diversity has been put in the context of globalization. Thus the oppositional values of a project that was grassroots‐driven has become a public relations tool for administrators. As Ahmed suggests, diversity ends up reinforcing whiteness and aestheticizing equality by marketing such institutional efforts in ways that render some differences more acceptable than others (151).

What does it mean, then, to write about the need for increased numbers of faculty members of color in the humanities? How do we support talented minority undergraduates at a time when affirmative action has been under legal attack and now is at risk of being revoked? How do we counteract the market forces that dictate the reduction of graduate programs? Demographic changes and the growth of minority high school graduates should prompt universities to support initiatives that increase the presence of minority students on campuses, yet budget constraints, limited resources, color‐blind policies, and postracial discourses are enlisted to justify ignoring such initiatives.

In this essay, I share personal memories of the contradictions, tensions, and challenges that minority graduate students and assistant professors have faced in the humanities. Quantitative data show patterns, but the numbers should be complemented with experiences as well as with a candid analysis of the policies and factors that continue to fuel the marginalization of intellectuals of color. If “to talk about racism is to become the problem you pose” (Ahmed 153), then I risk once again (as I did in the 1990s) being described as the angry Latina (not the “wise Latina” [Sotomayor]) who speaks out in criticism of our disciplines and institutional life.

That scholars of color question the inclusion and exclusion of writers, traditions, or communities in established Eurocentric and United States canons suggests that their presence will trigger discussion and revision of these canons. I have witnessed the dismantling of reading lists for master’s exams in Spanish departments after graduate students of color demanded inclusion of United States Latino/a writers. Instead of adding these voices, faculty members decided to eliminate the required reading list altogether and restructure the goals of the master’s exam.

Any attack on racial and ethnic minorities is an attack on the interdisciplinary scholarship central to Latino/a studies. I am conscious of the risky homology between faculty members of color and interdisciplinarity, for it elides the work of many scholars of color who specialize in a mainstream field of study. Such scholars are more easily integrated into departmental life and curricula, yet they can influence their units if they speak out about inequality and exclusion. Most of my memories of the struggles of graduate students of color since 1990 involve their efforts at validating and legitimating their proposals for dissertation projects that challenged the discipline methodologically and in terms of its canon. Although literary studies has been profoundly influenced by discourses on race, ethnicity, and gender proposed by scholars of color, a cursory look at most literature departments across the country reveals a limited number of minority-focused courses in the curriculum. When scholars of color engage the humanities in interdisciplinary modes, literary texts no longer serve as the primary source of data. A literary text becomes one of many discourses, which are interwoven to answer social questions regarding cultural and racial inequality. This methodological maneuver is not always clearly understood by traditional scholars.

Research and teaching related to minority issues continue to be deemed as exotic or secondary, as a subfield at best, not central to the discipline. We are currently witnessing attacks on liberal arts education’s inability to provide marketable skills. The humanities have historically been associated with nonlucrative jobs. Yet by expanding the traditional curriculum and connecting the humanities with the new social, racial, cultural, and linguistic demographics of the United States, the presence of minority students in our disciplines could constitute a meaningful, long-term investment for the humanities.

During my career, I have faced several incidents of discrimination. On one campus, although I was approached by more than the usual number of students for mentoring, I was told that few students would be interested in my field of study and that those studying with me would not get letters of recommendation from other colleagues. It was an instance not of “microaggression” (Wing Sue) or even of a “decidedly chilly work environment” (Sotello, Myers, and Creswell 28) but of outright hostility toward me as a scholar and toward the field that I represented. Despite these threats and disciplinary violations, I ended up mentoring an excessive number of students of color who are now tenured, published professors in liberal arts colleges and public universities. I now consider it a major achievement of mine and a contribution to the field of Latino/a literary and cultural studies that I prepared those students for the professoriat, but this work was a direct result of the lack of faculty members of color in the College of Arts and Sciences on that campus. I mentored graduate students in ethnomusicology, English, sociology, anthropology, gender and women’s studies, American studies, and Spanish. I could have easily refused to work with these students on the grounds that I was not trained in their discipline or that I was not familiar with their research interests. Yet my willingness to mentor them was a central factor in their eventual completion of the PhD.

Hiring scholars of color was a painful struggle at one of the campuses where I taught. For ten years we identified senior and junior scholars as candidates but to no avail. Departments had to approve them, and most professors did not welcome people who they thought would rock the disciplinary boat. In contrast, at another institution where I taught, my unit had the ability to hire 100% full-time equivalents (FTEs) and evaluate them for promotion and tenure. The program grew from five faculty members to thirteen in ten years. However, because most minority scholars are clustered in interdisciplinary programs, most departments still lack a diverse faculty body. There is a clear correlation between policies and structures of hiring and recruitment and the curtailing or making impossible the hiring of minority scholars, not only in the humanities but in the social sciences as well. Minority scholars must also be hired by mainstream departments if diversity is to be legitimized on any campus, and interdisciplinary programs must also be equal partners with departments in curricular and hiring decisions. Many young scholars of color who have been trained in interdisciplinary ethnic studies programs may not desire a departmental affiliation. Universities or colleges that allow only departments to hire are clearly limiting the possibility of increasing the number of their faculty members of color who engage in interdisciplinary scholarship.

There is a strong relation between the presence of minority faculty members and graduate students and curricular transformation. At one of the campuses where I taught, many Latino/a graduate students in Spanish were frustrated at the lack of available graduate courses that addressed their interests in popular culture, the diaspora, and race and ethnicity. They were successful in their request to the dean for one more faculty position in those fields of study, but only after preparing a report that revealed the gaps between the most requested fields of study in the job market and the existing graduate courses in the Spanish program. The program offered most courses on Peninsular topics, but the report clearly indicated an increasing interest in interdisciplinarity, United States Latino/a literature and culture, and postcolonial and subaltern studies. I have taught on campuses where some departments informally express interest in hiring Latino/a scholars but never prepare a job announcement in that field. Other departments, recognizing the increasing number of Latino/a undergraduates in their classes, ask Latin Americanists to prepare new courses in United States Latino/a literature and cultures (as if there were no differences between the two fields in training or literary corpus) instead of requesting a new FTE focused on Latinos/as. Such empty rhetoric shows a lack of respect for a field of study that has developed for more than fifty years and that has contributed to our understanding of identity, hybridity, colonization and empire, immigration, language and bilingualism, literary studies, and the politics of representation. I will never forget a Latin Americanist historian who once told me, in passing, that he could teach a Latino/a studies course very easily if he spent two months reading the bibliography. I would never have considered undermining his field of study in that way.

Graduate students interested in pursuing Latino/a literary and cultural studies face major obstacles in completing their PhDs. At universities with generous financial aid to minority graduate students, many departments welcome graduate students of color as freebies, even if they do not have faculty members who match the research interests of those students. This lack of scholars of color exacerbates the already alienating experience of graduate school, for the minority students have to spend much more energy and effort in finding viable mentors, inside or outside their departments. Then, when the work of meeting the departmental requirements begins, so does the power struggle over disciplinary legitimacy.

A graduate student in ethnomusicology, for instance, who wanted to write an interdisciplinary, cultural studies–based dissertation on Mexican American music, was told that she was enrolling in too many interdisciplinary courses and not completing enough courses in her own department. Yet that department’s curriculum did not address her intellectual needs. Only one faculty member from her department, given the interdisciplinary nature of her project, ended up being on her dissertation committee. Another student in Spanish had to postpone her PhD exam dates for almost a year because the graduate committee in her department constantly changed its mind about approving the fields of study that this student had proposed for her exams. It insisted, in the name of the canon, that she prepare herself in one area that had no relevance to her dissertation. Yet, having created these obstacles, and only after her graduation, the department, for marketing purposes, listed her dissertation as an example of the cutting‐edge research by graduate students. Most graduate students I have mentored experienced this kind of struggle and tension. Even in the interdisciplinary programs where I taught, some were told that their research projects were too interdisciplinary. Because they were contesting disciplinary boundaries, these students ultimately enhanced their dissertations, but their departments would still refuse to recognize the importance of studying United States Latinos/as or would advise students earlier to change to a more traditional area of study.

Many students left academia altogether. The MLA report indicates that humanities doctorate attrition rates generally hover around 50%, while the “Hispanic doctoral students have an especially low ten-year completion rate of 37%” (Data 1–2). Dominant narratives argue that this attrition rate is natural and that students depart by personal choice, but I maintain that institutional factors explain their departure. The departmental work climate, the lack of faculty mentors who are familiar with the scholarly interests of graduate students of color, limited financial aid, and admission but no strategies for support or retention all play a role. In one instance, a student completed his master’s degree in Spanish but was told that he could not be admitted to the PhD program because his proposal to examine, from a gender and sexuality approach, the life and works of a poor minority poet was not considered acceptable by the graduate committee, although the poet’s literary significance had been highlighted in a biopic film. After repeated attacks against this student and his project, he left the academic world and is now teaching in a public school. He is an outstanding elementary school teacher yet to this day visits Spanish department Web sites, social media, and other forms of communication that update him on the latest Latin American novels and on literary news. He continues to be an avid reader. He would have made an excellent literature professor but was rejected and damaged to such an extent that he could not continue in the academic world.

I have witnessed female minority graduate students who dropped out of doctoral programs because no faculty mentor was interested in their research projects. Their departments admitted these women but, once they were in, offered little to no support for the women’s projects. The less support the students had, the less productive they were. Less productive, they received less funding and fewer teaching assistantships. This vicious cycle led to their departure. One student approached a woman of color faculty member to see if she would be interested in working with her, but the faculty member said no. Given the challenges that faculty members of color, particularly when they are women, have in balancing research and teaching demands with the service expectations on our campuses, this refusal was not surprising. Yet it is our collective responsibility to address the challenges that these students face and to get our departments, colleges, and universities to help. The MLA report states that faculty members of color spend more hours per week working on “unpaid tasks outside their institutions and more hours per week with advisees” (Data 4), which documents the significant needs of our communities and students. The burden of one body representing “her whole ethnic group” is not shared by many other colleagues in the humanities or in other scholarly areas (Sotello, Myers, and Creswell 42).

The MLA report’s figures indicate that between 1997 and 2006 not much has changed in terms of the numbers of foreign languages and humanities doctorates awarded to Hispanics. In the humanities, we gained seven more PhDs in nine years, while in the foreign languages, we gained four. These numbers show the stagnation that has characterized institutions of higher learning when it comes to diversifying. They suggest that diversity is being “managed” (Ahmed 53) and not truly associated with the inclusion of minorities. In the United States, the legal environment around affirmative action has led to the passage of laws that eliminate considerations of race, ethnicity, and gender from decisions about conferring benefits on students in higher education. (According to the American Council on Education, California, Washington, Nevada, Michigan, and Florida have enacted those laws [Coleman et al.]). Yet if we want to avoid a national scenario of academic segregation in which higher education is accessible only to the children of the elite, then we must educate and mentor our students of color. Demographics are a compelling reason for universities to reconsider their curricula and make the humanities and foreign languages spaces for the empowerment and inclusion of minority voices. English departments, for instance, need to include Arab American literature in their teaching and scholarship. How are we integrating religious studies into our analysis of racialization and subordination? If we think of diversity as a “narrative of repair” and as a means of recovering from racism (Ahmed 163–71), then it is up to scholars and administrators to make diversity a leading value that will transform the university and society as well.

Much has been said about the pipeline, both as a means of producing new scholars of color and as a problem, because those students drop out (Sotello, Myers, and Creswell). Yet the undergraduate years are when most college students make career decisions. If I had not had faculty members during my junior year who praised my analytic skills in literary studies, I may never have applied to graduate school in Spanish. If I had not had the mentors who spent substantial time with me reviewing my senior thesis and taking my work seriously, I may not have imagined myself as a future thinker and intellectual, as a producer of knowledge. The sense of empowerment that undergraduate students of color, particularly women, experience as the result of developing a scholarly voice can play a central role in helping students of color make decisions about their future professional lives. Teaching at the university may not grant a lifestyle of wealth, but it grants a status that increases one’s sense of respect and legitimacy. For students of color, many of whom are from working-class and working-poor families, earning a PhD must become a viable option as they consider their future careers.

How can we, scholars in the humanities and foreign languages, urge minority students to join us at a time when the economic crisis steers students toward more lucrative fields? In major Latino/a urban centers, such as Chicago, many students come from immigrant families where higher education is a channel for social mobility. Not many students (or their parents) may seriously consider the humanities as a way of moving up. I have encountered many parents who were not happy about their son’s or daughter’s long-term investment in a PhD in the humanities. They privileged manual labor over intellectual labor, they measured their child’s professional success in terms of salary and years in school, and they felt some urgency in having their son or daughter begin “real work.” Educating parents and students about the importance of the humanities in an increasingly global world and in the United States national context is crucial if we are to secure a strong pipeline of students who will pursue the PhD.

Making our society understand Latinos/as is in itself a much‐needed task. Departments, programs, colleges, and universities continue to alienate students of color and impede their progress. While quantitative data serve as important reminders of our long-term failure, they cannot contextualize or explain the specific hurdles and human decisions that produce institutional racism. People, committees, departments, and disciplines can make changes that will influence positively and include students of color. At a time when liberal arts education has been criticized for not being pertinent or pragmatic, humanities and foreign languages departments should revise their curricula and literary and critical canons by identifying, nurturing, and mentoring undergraduate students of color who wish to gain the skills they need, and the vision, to become producers of humanistic knowledge.


  1. See De Genova and Ramos-Zayas. For a more recent and continuing debate on the question of race and ethnicity in the United States census, see Prewitt and the response to Prewitt by López.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke UP, 2012. Print.

Coleman, Arthur L., et al. A Twenty-First Century Imperative: Promoting Access and Diversity in Higher Education. University of Southern California. Coll. Board Advocacy–Amer. Council on Educ.–Educ. Counsel, Oct. 2009. Web. 12 Aug. 2013. <>.

Data on Humanities Doctorate Recipients and Faculty Members by Race and Ethnicity. Modern Language Association. MLA, Apr. 2010. Web. 12 Aug. 2013. <>.

De Genova, Nicholas, and Ana Yolanda Ramos-Zayas. Latino Crossings: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and the Politics of Race and Citizenship. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

López, Nancy. “An Inconvenient Truth: ‘Hispanic’ Is an Ethnic Origin, Not a ‘Race.’” The New York Times. New York Times, 24 Aug. 2013. Web. 2 Oct. 2013.

“People QuickFacts.” United States Census Bureau. US Dept. of Commerce, 2013. Web. 6 Nov. 2013.

Prewitt, Kenneth. “Fix the Census’ Archaic Racial Categories.” The New York Times. New York Times, 21 Aug. 2013. Web. 2 Oct. 2013.

Puwar, Nirmal. Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies out of Place. Oxford: Berg, 2004. Print.

Sotello, Caroline Viernes Turner, Samuel L. Myers, Jr., and John W. Creswell. “Exploring Underrepresentation: The Case of Faculty of Color in the Midwest.” Journal of Higher Education 70.1 (1999): 27–59. Print.

Sotomayor, Sonia. “A Latina Judge’s Voice.” 2001. The New York Times. New York Times, 14 May 2009. Web. 3 Sept. 2013. <>.

Wing Sue, Derald. Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Hoboken: Wiley, 2010. Print.

Frances R. Aparicio is professor of Spanish and director of the Latina and Latino Studies Program at Northwestern University. This essay appears as part of a cluster from the Committee on the Literatures of People of Color in the United States and Canada.

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