William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality
Episcopal Divinity School
Associate Professor of Religion
Chair, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies
Several years ago, a few senior racial/ethnic minority colleagues in the field of religion reminisced about the days when they belonged to a tiny minority of graduate students struggling to survive in the white graduate programs. Today, the number of minority colleagues has rapidly increased. In 2003 the American Academy of Religion (AAR) consisted of a total membership of 9,200. Of those, about 1,300 full members (13 percent of total membership) and 500 student members (19 percent of all student members) were self-identified as racial and ethnic minorities. The actual figures must be higher because there are members who have not declared their racial/ethnic background. Most of these minority scholars are studying or teaching in predominantly white institutions, often left to cope on their own with a lack of context and experience to assist them in navigating the complex demands of their status and role vis-à-vis their students, colleagues, institutions, and communities.
This Career Guide offers help by providing practical professional advice and guidance, from the doctoral training years through retirement. The Career Guide is sponsored by the Committee on the Status of Racial and Ethnic Minorities in the Profession, a standing committee of the AAR. The charge of the Committee is to recommend policies and good practices to assure the full access and academic freedom of racial/ethnic minority persons within the Academy and develop programs to enhance their status in the profession. It started out as an ad hoc committee in 1994 and was first chaired by Dwight N. Hopkins and subsequently by Peter J. Paris. Over the years, the committee has initiated various programs related to the recruitment of minority students to the profession, mentoring of graduate students, and career development of those in the field. It has sponsored special topics forums during the annual meetings to discuss a wide range of issues, such as identity, scholarship, and teaching; the construction of new knowledge; the public roles of racial/ethnic scholars; survival and flourishing in the academy, and interracial relations.
Discussions about publishing a career guide for racial/ethnic minorities in the profession have been going on for some time. Many members have found the book Guide to the Perplexing: A Survival Manual for Women in Religious Studies (1992) and its sequel A Guide for Women in Religion (2004) put together by the Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession helpful in navigating the minefield of an academic career. The preparation of the Career Guide gathered momentum when the ad hoc group became a standing committee in 2002 chaired by Kwok Pui-lan. A planning group was convened, consisting of Karen Baker-Fletcher, Mary C. Churchill, Miguel A. De La Torre, Kwok Pui-lan, Rita Nakashima Brock, Anthony Pinn, Rosetta Ross, Andrea Smith, John J. Thatamanil, and Lynne Westfield. We had very rich and productive conversations about our own experiences and consulted other guides before we decided upon the topics we wanted to include as well as the process of exploration. We intended to publish the Career Guide online on the AAR website and link the guide to other appropriate sites to make it widely accessible to all scholars in the field. We then divided the job of drafting individual chapters and recruited Peter Paris and other contributors. To include diverse voices and to encourage participation, we sent out an invitation to members of different racial/ethnic groups to contribute anecdotes and stories of their experience. We have included some of these inputs with changes to names, institutions, and other details to protect anonymity.
We understand racial/ethnic identity as socially constructed and debunk any notion of a fixed, essentialized, and homogenous identity. We recognize that the marginalization of racial minorities is due to the interplay of complex factors, such as racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, and ableism. Much of the cultural ethos, pedagogical assumptions, and standard of excellence in North American higher education are shaped by Eurocentrism, male privilege, and the neoliberal economy. Although there have been discussions of multiculturalism and inclusivity in some quarters, many of the changes that have taken place scratch only at the surface, without questioning the fundamental presuppositions of racist social structures and values. The recent economic downturn further exerts pressure on higher education, and administrators often respond by reverting to "traditional ways" of doing things, and cutting funding and support for sensitivity training and innovative programs.
But the pressure on a person belonging to a racial minority comes not only from discriminatory practices of the white institutions and society, but also from the conflicts and tensions arising out of the individual’s multiple social locations. The works of bell hooks and Richard Rodriguez have highlighted how the educational process has alienated racial/ethnic minorities from their communities of origin. The lengthy schooling and certification process often alienates one from one’s family and community, such that it is difficult for a minority to go "home" again literally and metaphorically. Many minority scholars lament that their families and communities often do not understand what they do and their passion for scholarly work. Shuttling back and forth in the in-between spaces, they have to negotiate very different cultural and social worlds and do not feel a full sense of belonging.
The pressure to survive and succeed in the competitive academic world can easily lead to strains in family relationships and grievances from spouses and partners. This is because minorities are constantly called upon to prove themselves by fulfilling competing demands and working doubly hard. Gay and lesbian minority scholars and those in interracial marriages often find that their more fluid and inclusive notions of family are not understood or supported by the white heterosexist academy.
Whether persons belonging to racial minorities can negotiate the multiple demands and challenges would depend on their perception of identity. Those coming from a working-class background, who are the first to go to college or pursue an academic career, experience more poignantly the intersection of race and class. Those who are the first or only minority in their institutions suffer from tokenism and bear the burden of markers of difference. The isolation and lack of support often make a minority scholar wonder whether one belongs or even deserves to be there. As a token in a largely white institution, a minority student or colleague stands out and becomes highly visible, yet at the same time, he or she remains invisible in the decision-making process and power structure.
Despite the odds and burdens faced by racial/ethnic minorities, many have found an academic career both meaningful and rewarding. Some have become pioneers in their fields of study, laying down groundwork and foundations for new intellectual inquiry. Some have developed innovative theoretical frameworks and brought to our attention new issues that have often been relegated to the periphery in the field. Others have discovered overlooked resources and repositories of knowledge, from slave narratives, oral tradition, spirituals, artwork, indigenous rituals, to long-buried archives and texts. Together we have cultivated and created a colorful and multifarious "intellectual neighborhood" as Toni Morrison has challenged us to do. The ferment in minority, subaltern, feminist, and postcolonial consciousness, as Edward Said argues, resulted in so many salutary achievements as to have produced a Copernican revolution in all traditional fields of inquiry. This exciting development has attracted many talented young minority scholars to the field to interpret and study the roles religious symbols, rituals, and personnel have played in shaping the identity and meaning-making process in the history of their communities. Even as the academy still discriminates against minorities, it nevertheless provides a critical space for sustained reflection, interdisciplinary conversations, and time for writing and research.
Although this Career Guide is structured in a way that focuses on various stages of academic life, we recognize that not all will pursue a teaching career or get tenure-track jobs. The training in religious studies can provide good preparation for various jobs, and some of our racial minority colleagues have fulfilling and admirable careers beyond the academy. We include in the Guide a particular section that offers advice for alternative careers, such as administration, non-profit organizations, activism, publishing, and consulting. Because teaching jobs have become more competitive, we include also some hints for adjuncting and job sharing.
We want to challenge the stereotypical image that the academy is an ivory tower and that theoretical work must be abstract and isolated from concrete realities. In fact, many racial/ethnic minority scholars continue to maintain strong links with their communities of origin, playing significant roles in their religious and civic communities. Instead of subscribing to a liberal paradigm which assumes that scholarship must be "objective" and "value-neutral," many minority scholars understand knowledge as power, and academic inquires can be used to illuminate and serve the liberation, decolonization, and empowerment of their communities. Their research is not conducted in the libraries alone, but is often based on interviews and field studies of actual subjects and social movements. Through teaching and advocacy, they play the roles of "organic intellectuals" in transforming their communities and society.
In the Career Guide, we have provided candid and strategic advice for our colleagues based on the wisdom we have gained and on what we have learned from others. It is our sincere wish that racial/ethnic minorities will not only survive but also flourish in the academy and in the professions they have chosen. The Career Guide does not encourage acquiescence and indiscriminatory accommodations to the white institutions, but speaks of the lure and danger of complicity with the oppressive systems. Despite our best efforts at being conscious of the various "isms" affecting racial minorities, we sometimes find ourselves complying with forces that act against our best interests. In most cases, our complicity results from unconscious internalization of negative images and stereotypes about our own or another racial/ethnic group. In such instances, behavior of racial minorities toward one another repeats biased exclusion resulting from doubts about competency and/or immediate distrust of one another. In other cases, when minorities work for several years within an institution, complicity may emerge as inertia and failure to analyze the extent to which we become comfortable in our socialization into an institutional status quo. In this case, racial/ethnic minorities may find themselves identifying with their institutions and less willing or able to criticize exclusive institutional practices and their own participation in those practices. Finally, complicity may result from the conscious or unconscious desire to align oneself with sources of power. Here racial/ethnic faculty may compete with and sometimes denigrate each other in order to secure or maintain favor or proximity to power. Apart from these discrete instances of complicity is the inherent difficulty of negotiating a place of accountability and integrity within majority institutions. The distinctions often may become blurred in view of the negotiation required of us. Moreover, the intersection of gender with any of these cases compounds complicity. Coupled with patriarchal practices of the larger society, the challenge of sexism within racial/ethnic communities can amplify both the potential for acquiescence to stereotypes as well as intensify the injury to racial/ethnic women that may result from it.
It is important for racial/ethnic minorities to recognize how easily we may become co-opted by forces we struggle against. Conscious recognition of the potential for any of us to act in complicity with the "isms" can help us understand the need to remain vigilant about the precarious status we hold in majority institutions. Recognizing our own potential for complicity also may provide space for critical self-reflection when relationships with other colleagues of color go awry. In institutions where there are two or more racial/ethnic faculty, hopefully, awareness will result in honest conversation between racial/ethnic colleagues about potential or actual complicity and co-optation. Such conversation may be viewed positively as opportunities for collaboration as well as places where people of color can mutually hold each other accountable. For racial/ethnic minorities who are "the only one," regular engagement with people of color communities is an important source of ongoing accountability. Finally, we should not overlook relationships with allies in the majority community whose politics on issues of gender, class, heterosexism, etc., also may help with our own critical self-reflection.
To be able to continue the process of critical discernment and to lead a balanced and sane life, it is vital for racial/ethnic minorities to cultivate and maintain strong supportive networks and honest friendships in different stages of their careers. Self-care and attention to one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual health are critical in the struggle for the long haul. We witness, with regret, how isolation and stress have taken a toll on the mental and physical health of some of our colleagues. It is not a shame to seek professional help and to ask for support from friends and colleagues. When one becomes physically challenged, it is important to know one’s rights and avail oneself of the resources provided by the workplace and the community. To replenish our energy and to sustain ourselves through joys and sorrows, it is often necessary to cultivate a spirituality that nourishes our mind, body, and soul, and to be connected to the sources of wisdom of our own people.
Although this Career Guide is written primarily for racial/ethnic minorities in religion, we hope that our white colleagues will also find it insightful. We recognize and appreciate the significant contributions made by white colleagues as they work to create an environment that is conducive to the hiring, retention, and promotion of racial minorities. We have included a chapter on good practices for institutions wishing to diversify and suggested other readings and resources. We encourage readers to be acquainted with racial harassment and anti-discriminatory policies of their institutions and to avail themselves of services provided by offices for minorities. Since the rules and practices of different schools and institutions vary, readers should use common sense when following advice and suggestions offered in the book. Most important of all, this Guide should not be the substitute for legal advice and counsel from lawyers, because institutional policies, job and publishing contracts, hate crimes, and regulations against discrimination have complex legal ramifications.
We want to express gratitude to those racial/ethnic minorities who have blazed a trail before us. Their courageous examples have given us hope that the field of religion is a vineyard that welcomes our labor. We offer this Career Guide to those colleagues coming after us, and may they soar to new heights and find fulfillment and joy in the profession.