To Be Both Seen and Also Not Seen at All
Being Black in academia means living with this contradiction.
Opinion By Brooke Coley
In my time as a faculty member, I have commonly experienced a unique dichotomy—feeling hypervisible and invisible simultaneously. It is strange that one can feel extremely conspicuous and, in the same breath, not feel seen at all.
Last spring, prior to classes moving online, I taught a graduate course on inequities in STEM. One particular day, the discussion had hit a sweet spot—the conversation was transformative. We had run over a few minutes into the break between classes, but most entering students shifted back into the hall upon request. One (a male-presenting student, but I can’t be sure of gender) decided not to wait and barged into the room.
They ignored my attempts to identify myself as a faculty member; they ignored my polite explanation of my need for the room. The student had now disrupted my class and decided, in front of 30+ students, that my power as a Black engineering faculty member was no more significant than their own. Disrespected and humiliated, I asked the student for their name. Positioned with privilege, the student refused to answer and instead asked for mine.
In this example, my various hypervisible roles likely played a part. I am both a Black faculty member and a woman, and I appear relatively young. Such intersectionality can add complexity to examinations of marginalization. But what was clear: My race was prominent; my faculty status, invisible.
Not all experiences of invisibility and hypervisibility are based in disrespect. Often, students’ choices are informed by engineering’s norms and culture. Students have admitted to me their preference to work on research with faculty who have less expertise in the field that I possess. My competence is not enough; they assume my voice and power are limited.
Conversely, I am hypervisible to the minoritized and marginalized students who seek me out for mentorship and support. They see me as someone who shares their identity and can relate to their experiences, a role model and example of success.
Hypervisibility is everyone knowing you even if you don’t know them, because you are one of three Black faculty members on campus. Invisibility is when a conference call a day after George Floyd’s murder continues with no acknowledgment of the events, and it takes everything in you just to be on the call. For everyone to “know” you and no one to get you is a taxing experience that Black engineering faculty endure far too often.
Of more than 27,000 U.S. engineering faculty members across all ranks in 2018, a mere 2.4 percent were Black. Distribute those 650 faculty across engineering programs nationwide, and the White, male hegemony is striking.
Faculty, staff, and students must become aware of the experiences of Black engineering faculty and understand the ways power and privilege are perpetuated in the academy. But institutions must also be held accountable for creating more inclusive and equitable environments.
Compensate women and faculty of color for their invisible labor, such as advising students of color or serving identity-related professional organizations. Recognize these activities in tenure and promotion portfolios.
Incorporate equity and inclusion efforts into tenure models for all faculty, providing incentives to help shift culture. A demonstrated commitment to equity, anti-racism, inclusion, and justice could range from anti-racism training to integrating culturally relevant pedagogy.
And support faculty efforts to engage with critical communities in the absence of adequate representation on their own campuses, to help offset feelings of pioneerism. Funding faculty attendance at gatherings, such as through the National Society of Black Engineers, can provide invaluable momentum to faculty and help counter the hypervisibility-invisibility dichotomy.
Brooke Coley is an assistant professor of engineering at Arizona State University and principal investigator of the Shifting Perceptions, Attitudes, and Cultures in Engineering (SPACE) Lab, which aspires to elevate the experiences of marginalized populations, dismantle systemic injustices, and transform the way inclusion is cultivated in engineering.