A panel of USC professors shared the personal struggles and disadvantages they have faced in their careers as educators because of their race during a forum at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center Thursday. The event, hosted by the Asian Pacific American Student Assembly and Academic Culture Assembly, featured former winners of the USC Professors of Color Award while this year’s winners were being selected.
The Professors of Color Award recognizes faculty and staff members of color at USC that demonstrate exemplary behavior both inside and outside the classroom. Panelists said that as professors of color, they can often become isolated within their departments as they disproportionately carry the weight of mentoring and supporting similarly marginalized students.
“Being a person of color, you are already walking on this tightrope and people are watching,” said Terence Fitzgerald, a professor in the School of Social Work. “They have stereotypes. They have perceptions that been ingrained since the beginning of this country. When you are in that environment, when you are still the minority, there is still that perception. And it does not matter how many letters I have after my name, you are still viewed under that racial lens.”
The professors highlighted examples of the demeaning rhetoric they experience as minorities in academia. Dr. Neelesh Tiruviluamala, who teaches math in the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, emphasized the ways in which students’ race can have a negative impact on their interests in particular subjects because of the racial stigmas attached to them. Tiruviluamala said that he is working on a mentorship program in East Los Angeles where college math students would demonstrate to children from communities of color looking to study math beyond high school that they too can succeed in math.
“There are so many assumptions about people and what they do and stupid stereotypes about some people being good at math that we actually believe these things and it actually makes a difference,” Tiruviluamala said. “How you look and the culture of where you come from can change how you feel and your ability. And when it comes to math, which is something innate, it is especially dangerous.”
Each of the panelists stated that they have heavily relied on mentors on their paths to becoming professors. Tracy Tambascia, a professor at the USC Rossier School of Education, said that being a minority has caused her to be “a fighter,” because she feels overwhelmingly underestimated by her peers. She conceded that this is part of the journey of being a minority professor, but that she appreciates that she now has a seat at the table from which she can influence other students of color to pursue higher education.
Tambascia, who is Asian, said that the racist comments she receives frequently resulted in her being a strong student administrator and advocate for her students.
“I am always underestimated,” Tambascia said. “I get backhanded comments like ‘you are very articulate.’ But that is part of the journey. I have learned to work harder.”
Andrea Grace Parra, a professor in Dornsife’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese, added that there are certain disadvantages that minorities can overcome if they maintain their strengths and values. Fitzgerald agreed that minority professors are held to a different standard, and brought up his own experiences working in public schools in marginalized communities.
“Some days I don’t like to talk about how it feels like to be in my skin,” Fitzgerald said. “Having the degrees I have and still feeling like I am nothing in 2016 … is insulting. But you push through it.”