The oppressed can be oppressors too

By Gloria Estela González Zenteno

Summer of 2020 is a time of national soul searching. After the horrific killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black Americans, Black Lives Matter has become a rallying cry for a sizable number of American citizens and residents. 

 It is sadly telling that just when many programs and departments at Middlebury College, including my own, have issued statements of support for racial justice, my colleague and friend Marissel Hernández-Romero recounts some of the many racist incidents she has experienced at Middlebury and at the Department of Luso-Hispanic studies since her arrival three years ago. 

Middlebury College prides itself on promoting diversity among its students and faculty, often boasting its statistics and glossy images of BIPOC community members. But our college will not be truly diverse until it provides a safe environment for the handful of Black and other minority employees. In failing to nurture them, we undermine their careers and benefit those who have always held power. In other words, we support a White supremacist institution.

I can say many things about Dr. Hernández-Romero’s years at Middlebury College, but her letter provides a better glimpse into her life here as a hell of alienation and silence than I could offer. And what better evidence is there of this hell than the college taking less than two hours to scrub her message from our community’s email servers? Then came the explanation to add paternalism to the silencing. 

I am angry. I have been angry seeing colleagues act as if she did not exist. I am angry that her concerns were not taken seriously, and her demands postponed. Sadly she is not alone; she is one of several women to leave Middlebury this year for appointments at peer institutions. I feel a deep sense of loss but also of responsibility. We failed to support them; thus, we deserve losing them. But our students do not. 

As hurtful as these events are, they are not unique, but simply the latest in a long timeline of the college’s failures to demonstrate a true commitment to diversity. They find echoes in my department’s own history. I have many times seen colleagues — the vast majority female, many of color, some LGBT — feel unwelcome, fail to thrive, then leave. Others have stayed, but cope by keeping distance from a toxic environment.

I am disheartened by how little has changed since I arrived on a one-year appointment, 24 years ago. Soon after my arrival, I met my two “senior junior” colleagues who, unlike me, had tenure track appointments. I was happy to have role models who could show me the way, until the end of the year when they announced they were both quitting. When I asked why, one of them, a Black female colleague, said: Stay long enough and you will see. 

I did, and soon my departed colleague’s words proved right. I saw many colleagues, mostly members of vulnerable groups, humiliated and undermined. In addition to my colleagues who departed in 1997, at least two more left their tenure track jobs after passing the first reviews. Two others saw their applications for tenure-track positions dismissed in what I believe to be irregular and unethical ways. Two more endured and were awarded tenure, but within a few years their bodies gave out. If you were here in 2013 or 2017 you remember them; if not, you probably have heard their names — Ana Martínez-Lage and Juana Gamero de Coca.   

I too was part of that group. Throughout my pre-tenure years, I was the target of misogynistic and racist attacks while the leadership in my department stood by: some as enablers, others as co-victims. Only when I got tenure — in what seemed a miraculous event — did I feel I could ask for protection. My many meetings with the Dean of Faculty and the President of the College (in a previous administration) went nowhere until I hand-delivered to them a written account of what they already knew. That was the turning point: the paper trail compelled them to act. My tormentor left, and I eventually healed.  

Others came after me, and eventually Dr. Hernández-Romero: the first Black woman to join our department since 1997. Like me, she went for help to the leadership after many instances of racism. Unlike me, she was listened to, but received no recourse. In this we have failed her. The fact that some in our department have been targets of misogyny, racism, classism or other forms of bigotry does not remove our responsibility. On the contrary, our experiences should foster deeper empathy for others and raise the standards we hold ourselves to.

 What happened to Dr. Hernández-Romero is not an individual problem, but an institutional one. Our review system, for instance, places our junior colleagues in a relationship of dependency. The mentorship they require is based on trust and respect.  If senior colleagues doubt juniors’ lived experiences, if they deny them support and recourse, if they believe they are not “one of us”: how can they overcome? We could, instead, start by taking their grievances seriously; we could show that we want them to succeed — a disposition that has surely helped many White male professors through the tenure process.  

What would it take for us to apply our policies towards the anti-racist goals in our Black Lives Matter statements? And can we turn our liberal institution into a radical one? We have the expertise and the resources; I hope we have the courage. 

Gloria Estela González Zenteno is Professor of Luso-Hispanic Studies and Director of the International and Global Studies Program.