David Leonard, Associate Professor of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, wants you to know why he is comfortable in his classroom and is respected by students: He’s white.
But my ability to do this—to maintain authority even while wearing a Zinedine Zidane or Terrell Owens jersey—is predicated on what George Lipsitz called “the possessive investment in whiteness.” In other words, institutional biases and individual prejudices reinforce one another. They certainly affect my place as a professor. My status as a white male is intertwined with the respect I receive. Women and scholars of color are not afforded this built-in respect, whatever their individual accomplishments, sartorial choices, degrees, or pedagogical styles. As a white male, I benefit from being seen as a professor, as an authority, before I actually say or do anything.
In my 12 years at Washington State, I have never had a student complain about my sartorial choices, my profanity, my propensity for “tangents,” or my professionalism. The same cannot be said about my colleagues, women and faculty of color, whose professionalism, authority, and preparedness is routinely challenged. My wardrobe of jerseys, hoodies, baseball hats, and sagging jeans is not subject to the evaluative scrutiny of future Mr. Blackwells. Contrast that with the women and people of color in the academy whose clothing selections are questioned and used to evaluate their expertise.
Respect and professionalism, prof? I’ve got news for you: With your wardrobe choices, there are students who will automatically question you, your whiteness notwithstanding. Just because no one has complained doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.
After all, sagging jeans? A Terrell Owens jersey??
(Hat tip to Discriminations.)