‘Hide your Mexican identity.’

That’s what astrophysics professor Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz was told as a student during his postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. His experience is one of many that students and faculty of color (FOC) have to navigate given the constraints of systemic inequity and structures of whiteness.

Ramirez-Ruiz’s grandfather, who belonged to the Chichimeca tribe indigenous to Mexico, would’ve told him otherwise. The Chichimeca believe that in order to become a full person, one must build up their essence — a characterization that can be applied to the work of FOC to help create pathways for students of color.

Members of the UCSC community gathered on Zoom on April 1 to do just that. Hosted by the Center for Racial Justice, the event was geared towards transforming structures of whiteness in university leadership.

Amidst the Zoom crowd of 119 were deans of academic divisions, faculty members, graduate and undergraduate students, and Chancellor Cynthia Larive, who left after the first hour of the 90-minute event. Event organizers were made aware of her early departure prior to the event.

The event was the second in a multi-part series that builds on the work of psychology professor Rebecca Covarrubias and third-year graduate student Katherine Quinteros, whose latest research investigates the experiences of FOC in higher education and research institutions.

Transforming Structures of Whiteness 

After introductions, Covarrubias and Quinteros spoke briefly about their research findings.

The event transitioned to faculty members speaking about the ways that they have sought to make the university environment more friendly to both faculty and students of color.

Professor Celine Parreñas Shimizu, the Dean of the Arts Division at UCSC, was one of the faculty members who spoke at the event. Shimizu, whose work engages with intersections of art and race, highlighted the importance of using the physical campus itself as a canvas for change.

Covarrubias and Quinteros found that FOC lead majority of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives (DEI) to better serve students of color.

FOC also reported satisfaction in DEI activities that focus on social justice and on the collective well-being of people of color at institutions.

“We can transform spaces in terms of having art that showcases the brilliance of artists of color,” said Shimizu. “The most relevant art can happen here.”

By transforming what spaces themselves look like, students may be more inspired to dream and hopefully, more windows to opportunity can open.

It was this kind of rare opportunity that allowed Covarrubias and Quinteros to do their research in the first place — because someone in a higher position helped to open the door.

With help from Ramirez-Ruiz and Jody Greene, the Founding Director of the Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning who encouraged Covarrubias to apply for a grant, the two researchers were able to secure funding for their report.

“It’s a model for how upper-level leadership itself can call on and give gateway opportunities to faculty,” said Covarrubias, who comes from a low income first-generation background. Motivated by her own experiences in academia, she sought to document a collective voice amongst FOC.

Through a combination of empirical data and personal interviews, Covarrubias and Quinteros found that FOC face an increased amount of burnout, struggle with university leadership, and career stagnation.

Rather than focus on creating a system that offers equity and a foundation for the students it serves, universities have shifted the responsibility onto FOC, who are overworked by having to carry out structural change alone.

Emotional and Invisible Labor: Who is Shouldering It?

For these members of faculty, invisible labor is a world of extra responsibilities. This includes helping students of color navigate university structures even while faculty themselves continue to struggle against it.

“We are at a crisis point. There’s something untenable right now about the way that the university is structured, which means that some of us are doing an extraordinary amount of invisible labor,” professor Christine Hong said. “It comes at the cost of our own career advancement and it also manifests across the board in burnout.”

Hong, who helped organize the event series under the Center for Racial Justice, is also the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Department Chair. Aside from her own academic work, she is a mentor to both graduate and undergraduate students, and a mother.

Many women of color, like Hong, are met with the challenge of balancing work and family life. Coupled with the work they provide for their students and peers, the emotional labor they provide amounts to incredible amounts of work left uncredited. Given the systemic challenges that occur within universities — and workplaces as a whole — for women of color and for mothers specifically, they face difficulty in reaching leadership positions.

“Oftentimes women of color become associate professors, and stay at associate level for a long time because of the enormous service work they do. Yet, there have been very few structural remedies to address the fact that their careers are stalled as a result of what they do,” said Hong.

The basis of compensation of university employees comes from the products they produce. UCSC is an R1 institute, meaning it is research-based. Most employees are remunerated for the tangible research they produce. With many coming from first-generation and low-income backgrounds, the need for compensation is dire, but the invisible labor they do is entirely unpaid.

Christina Ravelo, a professor of ocean sciences, and the Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Physical and Biological Sciences Division at UCSC spoke on the necessity of uplifting and rewarding FOC for the labor they put into aiding students of color. 

“There should be more holistic ways to be recognized for the impact you are making even if it’s not just centered on research. Right now, that’s not the way we do things,” said Ravelo. “I have risen up to the top ranks of faculty because I’ve basically conformed and done what I’ve had to. At this point, I see how difficult it was for me, and how it is not the right thing for everybody. I try to use my positionality to try to promote changes in the system.”

What Next?

It has been a decade since the university fulfilled the requirement to be an Hispanic Serving Institution, with more than 25 percent of its undergraduate enrollment being Hispanic students. Similarly, the university is an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving Institution, and almost half its student body has been non-White for almost a decade. 

However, the same has not been reflected in the demographic makeup of the university’s faculty. Some FOC say that the university has made many attempts to pose as diverse whilst tokenizing faculty and students of color. 

“I sometimes feel like I’m an avatar for diversity in this university. They want to put me in every poster or pamphlet they have. But they don’t understand the complexities that are required to support students of color.”

Ramirez-Ruiz

Recently honored by the White House for his work in intersecting diversity and STEM, Ramirez-Ruiz is no stranger to how the university tokenizes diversity programs. He noted his resignation as the Chair of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department as being a result of lack of support for his own diversity initiatives.

Lack of support for faculty of color means less support for their students of color, thus perpetuating structures of inequity. Disassembling these structures of whiteness entails an emphasis on social justice and equity in all disciplines, especially when it comes to hiring and review processes.

According to Ramirez-Ruiz, the Chichimeca believe that when you come into this world, your essence rushes towards you and breaks into pieces. When the pieces scatter, they fall into other people.

“It’s not until you share those pieces that you become more complete,” said Ramirez-Ruiz.

While students have a role to play in their own well-being, FOC are the buttresses that keep students of color feeling like they belong.

Day three of the event series, “Recognizing Invisible Labor in the University: Ways Forward,” is happening on May 6, 2022.

This article was published as a part of a City on a Hill Press backlog, and was originally written in the week of April 10.

This article has been corrected to amend an incorrect title on May 5.