Ashlei’s Bookshelf: Presumed Incompetent

Book: Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia Edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Riemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez, and Angela P. Harris

Genre: Non-fiction essays/journals

Readability: 4/5

Length: 504 pages

Cost: ~$40.00 on Amazon

Overall: 5/5

Presumed Incompetent

Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia is not just a book for women of color; it is a volume about women of color but one that is for men and women of all races and ethnicities. It provides rare insights for those of us who are not women of color into the experiences, perspectives, goals, and realities of a significant constituency in academia. –John F. Dovidio

Have you ever read a book and felt the physical urge to highlight almost every sentence? Felt validated by every passage? Had each word resonate with you in some fashion?

Well, this book was that, for me.

Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia is a collection of essays and journals about the personal and treacherous experiences of women with various marginalized identities throughout their journeys in faculty positions. The title, Presumed Incompetent, eludes to the fact (yes, fact) that there tends to be a presumption of competence of white men in academia and other professional settings, but a reciprocal presumption of incompetence of all others (women, people of color, etc.).

You may think, “So what if people think you’re incompetent?” But I encourage you to think larger. This presumption of incompetence of women of color often leads to disrespect from both faculty and students, low evaluations from students, lack of promotions, lower pay, lack of connection in the workplace, and even violence (all of which are touched on in detail inside this book).

The essays collected in this volume examine the ways that higher education reflects and reproduces — yet also sometimes subverts — the social hierarchies that pervade American society, including race, gender, class, and sexuality.

Other than thinking to myself, “OMG Yaaasss!,” and, “Mhmmm (with my mouth twisted),” as I flipped through all 504 pages, there are a few specific reasons why I gave this book a 5/5 overall rating.

It’s organized very cohesively.

The 30 essays of Presumed Incompetent are organized into 5 different parts:

  1. General Campus Climate
  2. Faculty/Student Relationships
  3. Networks of Allies
  4. Social Class in Academia
  5. Tenure and Promotion

Each part is preceded by a short introduction that does a great job of introducing the following essays in a collective manner. While the book is rather long (hence, the 4/5 readability rating) and chock-full of emotionally-charged experiences, the organization served as a facilitator to mentally organize the reader’s reactions and reflections, as well as a way to make sense of the narratives provided. My Type A self was very pleased.

It’s packed with empirical evidence.

While it certainly has a journal/diary feel to it, don’t get it twisted! Presumed Incompetent also has the research to back it up. (There’s a 35-page reference list.) 

The personal experiences told, coupled with factual research definitely strengthens the validity of their narratives. It’s certainly not just a venting session for “fed-up” women in academia. There are statistical, sociological, and political studies of actual, verifiable discrimination based on race and/or gender. *finger snaps in a Z formation*

It gets very intimate.

The essays are written in first person, and man, do they really go there. At some points, I even googled the authors of some of the essays to ensure they still held the positions they were writing about! Some of them even spoke to the possibility of damaging relationships or future employment possibilities due to having contributed to this book.

While I experienced emotions such as sadness, anger, and bitterness, their stories also led me to feel very empowered, resilient, and enraged to the point of social action and change. How selfless of these courageous women to offer their insight and advice to young women like myself entering the academy, potentially at the expense of their own current and future professional lives! I. Am. Grateful.

Nonetheless, I appreciated the raw truths told by these brave women in academia. As a black woman navigating graduate school and hopefully someday navigating academia as a faculty member, I do not wish to “reinvent the wheel”. I deeply value mentorship and the advice and wisdom of those who came before me, which this book definitely both spoke to and offered. The intimacy of their survival stories spoke to the therapist in me as well.

As previously stated, you do not have to be a woman of color in academia to read nor value this book. The stories inside this book affect everyone, and are applicable to a range of professional and informal settings. This book reveals and validates the lived experiences of women and people of color and can serve as a “leap toward liberation” and contribute to the fight for social justice and change in academia and beyond.

If you’re familiar with this book, let me know your thoughts or reactions!

Be well.♥


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