I write this in solidarity with women of color; women who bear histories of slavery, colonialism, and migration; women whose great-grandmothers picked your cotton, whose grandmothers cleaned your houses, whose mothers labored in sweatshops to sew your clothes, to get us, their daughters, to the place where we are today—college-educated and “professionalized.” I write this because I can see that higher education is in shambles, repeating its status quo while losing what could be its only hope: opening its doors to difference.
There is much literature that demonstrates the shift in higher education toward adjunct labor, the corporatization of the institution, and the skyrocketing tuition costs that come to line the pockets of the upper-level administrators. But this writing comes from the perspective of an adjunct instructor who is also a woman of color. It is about a specific intersection of forces that needs to be discussed for it reveals something about the state of higher education and its relation to diversity.
Many are familiar with the adjunct’s story. As an adjunct, one works from contract to contract, teaching for short periods with no assurance that one will be rehired in the future. People take on these dead-end positions for different reasons. Some want to gain teaching experience. Others are piecing together a living from multiple teaching jobs. Some hope, however much of a long shot it might be, that this adjunct position will one day turn permanent.
Across Los Angeles art schools, I can count on one hand the women of color who are tenured or regularized. Art education is notorious for its lack of diversity at the faculty level, and the adjunct woman of color, usually hired to make up for this lack of diversity, comes up squarely, repeatedly, against the forms of institutionalized racism that occupy every corner of every turn in higher education.
The adjunct woman of color works hard at a curricular level to shift the discourse students are exposed to. In her classes, which ground art history, theory, and practice in larger questions about power and knowledge, she unravels the narratives around art and politics, decolonizes them, reshapes them from the underside of history toward a global interpretation of the dynamics of the world we live in. The adjunct woman of color takes on an additional weight when she is the one whom all students of all colors who are interested in questions of race, gender, and sexuality go to. These are students who themselves are trying to understand why they feel so excluded, so marginalized, so erased from the system they are in. All come to the adjunct women of color because nobody else “gets it.” This would be a huge responsibility to take on for someone with job stability, let alone for an adjunct women of color who is hired at a fraction of the cost of her regularized colleagues.
Unlike clear-cut instances where we can clearly point to a person who perpetrates racist violence, institutionalized racism is the understanding that structures and ways of thinking are embedded within institutions that continue to perpetuate and sanction the dominance of one group, predisposing other groups to precarity. Institutionalized racism is not simple to see. Institutionalized racism claims to be colorblind, but lies in ways of thinking and acting that continue to guard the field, the discipline, the program at all costs. This way of thinking and acting would, for example, prioritize an artist’s visibility over the content and critical stance of a work. Or it would seek to fill missing gaps in curricula without thinking more broadly about the way those categories, in and of themselves, might come out of a Euro-centric framework. The first step toward undoing the bonds of institutionalized racism would be to understand that a commitment to diversity cannot happen within frames of categorizing knowledge that already exist in the institution. It requires an epistemic shift. Instead, the adjunct woman of color is offered up as the face of diversity with no investment in her development or well-being—an expendable, interchangeable Band-aid for the deep-seated institutionalized racism of the academe.
Finally, to my brilliant, luminous sisters, I ask: how do we survive? Daring, dreaming, I go further and ask, how do we thrive? Academia is occupied territory. As soon as we enter its doors, we are forced to become warriors. But each time we walk through that door, it takes a little piece of ourselves with it. I know there is a different way to imagine our survival, a different way to thrive in the lucid and boundary-crossing dreams that are a part of how we, as women of color, have come to recreate the world. Let us come together, to think this through, toward an art education that does not take advantage of our diversity to reproduce itself at the cost of our bodies, hearts, and minds.
MICHELLE DIZON is an artist, filmmaker, writer, theorist, educator and is the founder of at land’s edge, an experimental platform for visual research and catalyst for decolonial thought and action. She has taught courses on documentary, visuality, postcoloniality, globalization, war, feminism, and ecology at the California Institute of the Arts and served as co-chair and core faculty in the Visual Art program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She earned an MFA in Art from UCLA and a Ph.D. in Rhetoric from UC Berkeley.