In the grand tradition of the Jewish Intellectual, most of my family members work in or around academia. There’s good historical reasoning behind this: the one area where it’s pretty much always safe to be a Jew is higher education. In entertainment circles, Jews have shitloads of institutional power but can’t appear onscreen unless they get nose jobs or play the fool; in finance, Jews remain securely entrenched, but inevitably you’ll court the greedy Shylock stereotype (see: Goldman Sachs, Bernie Madoff, most of Obama’s financial team); in lobbying and law “¦ well, everybody hates lobbyists and lawyers, so that doesn’t count. Academia in the U.S. is the only place where a Jew is considered 100% White and has standard White privilege. Granted, there are Socialism accusations all over the place (holla to my blacklisted forebears!), but we’re typically insulated from anti-Semitism, at least within the greater institutional structure itself.
Mind, this wasn’t always the case–not too long ago, Jews weren’t allowed into plenty of schools, private or public. That, however, went kaput a generation or so past, and Jews have an enormous institutional advantage in higher ed–not so much disproportionate as in line with what other “true,” “non-ethnic” Whites enjoy. It’s kind of fun! I never worry that my ethnicity holds me back from admissions, fellowships, teaching gigs, institutional approval “¦ of course, I get grief from a few old guys for being female, but if anything, being a Jewish female actually helps me in the sense that the heads of half the departments root for me as “one of the tribe.” As a Jew, I have an In. It’s been quite enjoyable, and a remarkably pleasant change from growing up in Virginia in the 1970s and ’80s, where adults were still getting used to the concept of non-Black folk who weren’t blondes (don’t get me started on the blonde thing; I swear, I get all rage-y trigger-y about blondes. If you’re a blonde, I preemptively apologize).
Nowadays, as an educator primarily working with foreign students in U.S. universities, I’m encountering another version of what it can mean to be ethnic in higher ed. I’m (broadly) a writing teacher, largely for Korean students pursuing doctoral degrees in the U.S. (roughly 85% of my clientele at the moment); most come here with a Master’s degree from Seoul National University, and more than half have additional Master’s from various U.S. schools. Of these, all but two are women; approximately 75% are in music programs; and a slight majority of those are performers. Unfortunately for both my bank account and my rather alarming temper, that majority is starting to slip: I’ve lost three female Korean DMA (Doctorate in Musical Arts) candidates in the past year or so, completely through the efforts (and/or lack of effort) of a few fuckwads in the institutional structure.
New York City does not lack for non-Whites. Flushing is the single most ethnically and nationally diverse community in the world, the city boasts the largest Haitian and Puerto Rican populations outside of those islands, everyone is assumed to be from “somewhere else” “¦ this is a city of immigrants. As has always been the case, the children of these immigrants make heavy use of the educational systems; the international nature of the city also attracts many foreign nationals to its schools. Logically, NYC schools should be the last place to run into petty, unfounded biases based on skin color and accent; it should be a given that less-than-fluent and heavily accented English in no way indicates a less-than-astute mind. However, in all the music departments of the NYC institutions I’ve worked with/for/in/around, there are people in positions of enormous power who treat my students with the utmost disrespect for their intelligence. One person in particular, unfortunately the head of the performance division at a major university, seems to take a dislike to certain students for little or no reason, and continually thwarts their progress on the grounds of insufficient subject mastery.
I have taught most of the women pushed out of the degree program by this guy; I can say unreservedly that all were quite intelligent and capable in the non-performance areas of the program (one was doing some straight-up brilliant work in her thesis). So imagine my surprise when, one by one, I kept hearing about well-prepared exams being deemed unsatisfactory, solid dissertation proposals being rejected as weak, and insightful commentary being dismissed as unworthy of consideration. What was this fuckery? Was it just the one guy with too much power deciding to give shit to people who, as Korean women specifically, were generally raised to submit to the opinions of their professional superiors, and would also be afraid to seek redress in a system where they had no connections to power? Was the problem system-wide? Why these women in particular?
There are some striking similarities in the women targeted:
1) They’re quite smart, and therefore attempt to contribute more in discussion and tackle complex subjects than less intellectually-oriented students. When White performers do this, they are typically revered as “true artists”; however, East Asians in particular are expected to excel at technical mastery alone. I’ve seen institutional bias in music schools of all degree levels against those who defy such expectations.
2) Being smart, these performers push themselves to use more difficult vocabulary to better express their ideas; the result is an uptick in opportunities to hear broken English. The saddest part for me is that this aspect is specifically where I come in–yes, writing must be academic, formal, and idiomatic, and that’s what I help with. The students I like best are those who push themselves beyond simple, already-mastered language. Why would someone penalize those putting the most effort into things, those challenging their limits?
3) I didn’t realize this for a while, but two of the three women pushed out recently (and both of my current students struggling to stay in) are singers. Within the music world, East Asians are generally assumed to be instrumentalists, and only a few vocalists have risen to the top of the field. Again, where reality defies stereotype, the reaction on the part of the people in power is one of confusion, and therefore defensiveness and rejection.
Back to the “smart” thing: East Asians are considered a “model minority” in most professional areas of the U.S., most certainly including academia. However, transfer that model to a context in which there are conflicts–put a supposedly acquiescent and silent woman in an artsy, less-intellectual field, and watch her nonetheless express an active mind–and you automatically see a bunch of threatened old guys who expect everything to fall in line with an imaginary system in which all Asians are meek and modest, all women are governed by emotion and lack pure logic, and all singers are just plain stupid. The number of men pushed out of the program? Zero. Number of Whites pushed out of the program? Zero. Number of native English speakers pushed out? Zero. Despite the fundamentally international and multiracial nature of a university in a city of immigrants, and despite the likewise international context of the professional music world, the victims of institutional bias in these cases were uniform in cultural markers.
Most of my students know that I’m Jewish, and have commented enthusiastically on the similarities they see between traditional Korean and Jewish culture. The overarching thread is of the importance of education; with music in particular, there’s emphasis on the professional mastery achieved by international players in eras of significant migration. I love this connection, and am fairly devastated that there are people within the field whose actions threaten the bridges we’re trying to build with words and music. I have spent the past year trying to convince some of my students to go higher up in the power structure and complain about their treatment; I’ve offered to use my name, to go directly to people with whom I have influence, to act with the utmost discretion to ensure that nothing can be traced back to anyone I work with. In the middle of February, after yet another comprehensive exam attempt was rejected, someone finally spoke up, albeit softly; I’m waiting for permission to work my connections with the Jewish Intellectuals who lead the department, and for my students to return to work on their dissertations with me. Hopefully it happens soon, or I (and my landlady) will regret that my family of academics never sent any feeler cousins into the financial sector.