Critical Reflections on Being a Visible Minority in Political Science

Wendy Wong is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Her main research interests lie at the crossroads of International Relations and Comparative Politics.  She is interested in the politics of organization, why human beings choose to act collectively, their choices to go about doing it, and the effects of those choices.

As a woman of color who studies Black women in politics, I think deeply about the impact of one’s identity on her political behavior and how she is perceived in the world. My research interests often lead me to engage in advocacy work on behalf women of color – inside the academy and within the larger political discourse. Because this is my area of study and life’s work, I often take for granted the salient role of identity politics in everyday life for women of color. Fortunately, my interactions with Wendy H. Wong – Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Trudeau Center for Peace Conflict, and Justice at the University of Toronto – opened my eyes to how other scholars may view the impact of identity on their research and their life in the academy.

In April of 2016, Professor Wong (along with co-author Professor Sarah Stroup) had a featured in PSNow, which highlighted a recent article on authority in global politics and international nongovernmental organizations. APSA posted a stock photo of random Asian woman in place of a picture of Professor Wong. In response, Wendy Wong contacted APSA and the post was deleted. Of course, the post went viral. This incident coincided with annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. The topic of conversation at the bars in the Palmer House that evening was of the photo of a random Asian woman that ASPA tweeted instead of Wendy Wong. Thankfully, Professor Wong posted her thoughts on Duck of Minerva to express her frustration with the APSA and why merely deleting the tweet was insufficient. Professor Wong’s articulation of the simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility of women of color in our profession spoke volumes to why the discipline of political science must continue to study this population, document our experiences, and respect our narratives.

How can our discipline and its identity-based auxiliaries do more to support women of color? Currently, the majority of the members of the Women’s Caucus for Political Science (WCPS) and the Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession are gender and politics scholars. These organizations are open to women of all subfields – particularly those, like Professor Wendy Wong, whose primary research interests are not gender. Our caucuses, status committees, and other identity-based groups are preaching to the converted. I wonder how the WCPS and CSWP can do more to reach out members of our discipline who aren’t predisposed to think about issues of race/gender.

Perhaps this column is a starting point? My work with Women Also Know Stuff has helped me to see that our discipline is filled with scholars who commit acts of implicit bias against women (and people of color – and particularly, women of color). It is my sincere hope that this column will help to ameliorate the biases that women of color political scientists endure. By highlighting the experiences – and most notably, the deep thoughts of and response by Professor Wendy Wong – this article seeks to move one step closer to presenting a holistic picture of women of color in our discipline. This interview contains Professor Wong’s reflection on the PSNow picture debacle as well as her recommendations for challenging biases faced by visible minorities in our field. Professor Wong’s narrative is instructive. She is in the process of turning lemons into lemonade.

What are your current research projects?

Generally, I’m interested in questions of non-state governance and the role of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) in particular. I’ve got two big projects underway, first and foremost a book manuscript with Sarah Stroup that is under contract. The book is called The Authority Trap. The punchline of the book is that having more authority does not actually give INGOs more choices. In fact, we argue that having more authority constrains the types of choices that INGOs make, pushing them to moderate their demands. The book has some synergies with other research on power and authority in International Relations, including work on hegemony, so we think it has implications beyond INGOs as specific actors. We’ve also got some articles that will come out of the data that we collected for the book.

My colleague Ron Levi and I have been working on a project on the Ford Foundation and its influence on the development of human rights since the 1950s. Broadly speaking, we’re interested in how Ford shaped the trajectory of the international human rights movement from very early on, and we want to know how its vision of human rights moved throughout the INGO sector. To measure the movement of ideas Ford has about human rights, we’re currently tracking 1) the distribution of funds from 1953 to 2013, and 2) the movement of people into, within, and out of the Ford Foundation. We’re presenting some of the preliminary findings this summer, with the hope of publishing a series of articles in the coming years.

Explain how you became interested in questions around diversity and inclusion in the profession

This one is tough – I’m not sure I consciously thought about this in a sustained manner until the last year or so. This is partly from choice, and partly institutional.

I think early on in graduate school, I chose to move away from questions of ethnicity in particular. I had applied to several programs with the intent of researching ethnic conflict, but quickly switched out of that for many reasons. One of the main reasons was that it felt very personal because I was a racialized person in a largely-white subfield, and I didn’t think I could maintain the appropriate distance from the work. But also, I had a number of situations, so to speak, in graduate school that made me think that getting involved in diversity issues was a losing game, and I didn’t want to make waves. That leads me to my next point.

Institutionally, as a junior faculty person, you’re taught to keep your eye on the prize of tenure, and so you work towards that goal. I worked towards that goal with a singular focus that sometimes surprises me now. My clock at U of T was particularly short at the time, by North American standards, so I did the best I could to dot the I’s and cross the T’s. As a researcher of non-state actors, diversity and inclusion to me were questions of why and how we could remedy the glaring imbalance of Western/Northern INGOs working on issues in the Global South, and rarely the other way around. So my main thoughts around diversity and inclusion were very much work-focused for a long time. My main goal early on was to get published and get tenure. I think now, with some distance from that process, I’m less blind to some of the things that may have given me pause, but I would have never thought to pursue publicly, or even socially, before.

Certainly, it’s also a good time to be attuned to these issues, especially along the lines of gender, but also, as I am happy to know, along race and other visible minority markers.

What ways has being a woman of color shaped how you engage with the profession and how you are read in professional spaces?

As a caveat…Although I am a woman of color, I prefer the term “visible minority” because it captures what I think is the fundamental concern. My minority status and my femininity are visible markers in ways that perhaps other markers might not be. And there are other types of race or ethnicity-based markers that are not as well-captured with the term “color” as “visible minority.”

I was talking to someone about how being a visible minority woman shapes my view of the profession, and I think that it is a struggle once you see how easily those qualities about you – that may have no bearing on your research – become magnified. Once you turn on the antenna, you can’t turn it off.

This really cuts against the kind of thing academics value: our ideas, our arguments, our methods, and our evidence. Over the years, you develop defenses and coping mechanisms to challenges to your research, and you can make changes in response to peoples’ critiques. But how do you respond when you feel that you are being treated differently in a professional context that doesn’t have to do with your research? Am I not being invited to that workshop because they don’t take me seriously as a visible minority woman? Did I just get asked to be on this panel because I check two boxes for a diversity quota?

And then sometimes people tell you very directly that you somehow help them satisfy one diversity criterion or another, and that reifies the concern you had to begin with. That’s a real challenge.

What advice would you give to others who faced similar challenges in our discipline? 

Realize that you’re not alone – because of the way the academy works, you can exist in a pocket where it feels like you might be alone. But realize you’re not. One of the most amazing things about this particular period we’re in is that a lot of the hard work of engaging women and visible minorities has started bearing fruit, and you can see it in the conference attendees at the major meetings. There is official recognition of the problem of having too few women, and too few visible minority women in the discipline (e.g. APSA’s Committee for the Status of Women in the Profession’s 2016 report “Pipeline to Tenure,” work by Sara Mitchell and Barbara Walter and their collaborators, a recent FP blog about women and tenure, this blog), which is a crucial step. We are all part of the process, whether passively or actively.

Seek out friends – they can be anybody you feel comfortable talking to about challenges. One thing I noted when I was thinking this through recently was the paucity of senior visible minority women in IR. And I only started thinking about this because I had some problematic experiences, and wanted to see if I could seek some advice for promotion and future career plans. For a moment, I felt very isolated. But I’ve since spoken to many trusted men and women about what I’ve experienced, and truthfully, what helps is having someone listen and help you sift through what you’re struggling with — not necessarily having someone who is in “your group” who has had exactly the same frustrating experience(s).

Do what you’re comfortable with – the academy is a privileged place – we have flexible hours, we do what we want intellectually, and we get to interact with students who constantly expose us to new ideas and perspectives. There’s no need, unless you feel comfortable with it, to “do” anything. There are problematic practices and beliefs in society at large that are reflected within the academy, and sometimes we as individuals get to experience those problematic things firsthand. But if you feel vulnerable or unsure about bringing issues forward beyond a close circle, don’t. On the other hand, if you are comfortable with the attention, and indeed, feel that you must speak out, you should. Help bring attention to the problems of living and working even within our privileged place, because your voice matters.

What are the challenges/benefits to being a visible minority and a “model minority”? What lessons have you learned?

One thing that happens is that you’re expected to champion a certain perspective, or even a collective perspective. So I have been pretty cautious about saying anything about my experiences in a public context, in part because I don’t want to speak over anyone, or claim that my experiences somehow represent the “women of visible minority status experience.” I don’t think I was ready to speak out regarding these issues until APSA’s recent posts regarding my work with Sarah, and even then, I struggled with how to write about what I felt.

As someone who has for the most part shied away from tying my visible minority-ness, and my female-ness to my work, one of the most difficult realizations is that my efforts may not matter in a larger context. What I mean by this is that I don’t tend to work on topics that are solely gendered or racialized. I think this is what really struck home with the APSA posts – that folks would tie me (and my work) to a random, generic representation of my race and gender – that was both strange and illuminating. Being visible means that you can’t get away. That’s not necessarily negative or positive, it just is. That realization has helped me embrace different possible avenues of future work, and topics for writing!

In a profession where science is defined by its objectivity, how do you strike the balance between merit, ideas and your identity as a woman of color?

There is no objectivity in our work and our social identities as political scientists. We know that if we change the names on the top of identical CVs that people tend to think the male CVs are smarter-sounding and tend to discount the ones with obviously “minority-sounding” names. If that’s the case, then anyone reading my research, unless it’s under blind review, will know very clearly what kind of person it belongs to.

So it’s hard to know what constitutes “striking a balance.” My goal as a social scientist is to do the very best work that I can. But you do that, knowing that people can have any number of biases against your research, including your identity, but then also your research topic, approach, and other things that perhaps have less to do with merit, ideas, and objectivity, and more to do with academic and personal bias. I think we have to be willing to accept that reality as reality, but then also know that we have some agency in shifting the way that those biases are experienced through research or speaking out in other ways.

How does being a minority woman in IR impact your experiences – i.e., promotion, interactions with colleagues and students? 

In so many ways, it doesn’t perceptibly do so. Yet, I know that it must with students in particular, beyond the ways that we know appearances affect student opinions of you (e.g. in reviews). But it’s hard to put your finger on a certain type of experience I get because of being a visible minority woman. It may help certain students feel more comfortable with me and others more reluctant.

And I think that’s really the “trouble” here: you never really can fully know how bias might work, how genderization and racialization can swing both ways, and you have to deal with it. The hardest part about it, for me at least, is not knowing (I’m a researcher, after all!) how it all plays out, and that is tiring. As an academic, I’m no stranger to being judged and being judgmental. That’s all part of the job. But not knowing when and if and why I’m being judged, that’s not what they teach you to deal with in seminar and on conference panels.

What we need to do is to actively recognize bias in our profession, and engage people who feel that the visibility of their differences affects their intellectual work. People need to be able to talk about what they have experienced, and others need to respond constructively to those experiences. These things aren’t “stupid” or sui generis or made up – they’re systemic, they affect some individuals and groups disproportionately, and they create disparities in spite of our good intentions. Our efforts may not create the apocryphal “level playing field,” but I certainly hope that having more voices means speaking for oneself, rather than being spoken over or told.