The Uncharted Path: Navigating the Clandestine Gatekeeping of BIPOC Scholarship  

Established research shows that colleges and universities maintain historical legacies that undervalue BIPOC scholarship and their contributions through the explicit clandestine gatekeeping of BIPOC scholarship practices such as racial discrimination in evaluations, letters of recommendation, awards, funding, overloaded levels of service, and mentorship structures that fail to align with their needs and interests. These structural oppressions create a profound ripple effect that culminates in wounds shaped by non-belonging and unwelcoming, even hostile, work environments. Such barriers overtly obstruct the development and proliferation of research, publishing, and ultimately, the potential of the academic trajectory for many BIPOC scholars. While U.S. colleges and universities pour colossal investments into diversity initiatives, they barely scratch the surface of these structural inequities. 

Compounding matters is the series of clandestine gatekeeping barriers such as the privileging of conventional methodologies and the devaluing of alternative methodologies within academic disciplines that remain invisible and unaddressed.

Navigating these barriers within academic disciplines continues to be an unspoken necessity. These more covert obstacles especially inspire enormous turnover and significant challenges in retaining faculty and graduate students of color. 

To truly support scholars of color, universities are going to need to end both the explicit and implicit structures of inequity. But we cannot wait and hope for campuses to develop and implement necessary large structural changes one day when the cards are already stacked against us now. In addition to supporting BIPOC scholars facing explicit structural inequities now, universities also need to offer support for how to navigate the clandestine parts of the academic experience that are oppressive and deflating.

The Problem With DE&I

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) initiatives in universities have evolved over time and have been influenced by various social, cultural, and political factors. The origin and goal of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) initiatives in colleges and universities trace back to broader societal efforts to address and rectify historical injustices and systemic inequalities affecting underrepresented groups. These initiatives have evolved over decades, influenced by civil rights movements, affirmative action policies, and a growing recognition of the value of diversity in educational environments.

While these efforts to end racial inequity and promote diversity & inclusion have been ongoing for decades, those who are supposed to be supported,, scholars of color, often still find these initiatives ineffective for several reasons:

  • Tokenism: Sometimes, the presence of scholars of color is merely tokenistic, meaning they are included to give the appearance of diversity without genuine inclusion or meaningful involvement in decision-making processes.
  • Lack of Representation: In some cases, they lack meaningful representation of scholars of color in leadership positions or decision-making roles, which can limit their ability to address the distinct, nuanced ways scholars of color experience inequity and exclusion.
  • Institutional Barriers:  They may sometimes focus on surface-level diversity efforts, such as recruitment and representation, without addressing deeper systemic issues such as limited access to resources, disparities in funding opportunities, and a lack of adequate mentorship and support networks, These disproportionately affect scholars of color and undermine the effectiveness of DE&I initiatives.
  • Cultural/Racial Insensitivity: DE&I initiatives sometimes fail to adequately address the impact of these ongoing structural barriers on research, writing, and campus life leading to a sense of marginalization or alienation on campus.
  • Everyday Discrimination: Scholars of color may face subtle to crude forms of racial discrimination within academic settings, which can create hostile or unwelcoming environments that remain unaddressed within DE&I initiatives.

After more than twenty years in academia, I have learned that in addition to these overt and well-recognized structural inequities, there is more to the oppression of scholars of color. The explicit ways scholars of color experience racial inequity and alienation are compounded by clandestine forms of gatekeeping. For example, disciplines (as well as some interdisciplines) unfairly scrutinize the research methodologies scholars of color whose research tends to challenge the status quo tend to forge. I began to notice this while at my first academic job at a major R1 university with numerous DE&I programs intent on recruiting and retaining faculty of color. My colleagues, predominantly scholars of color, and I were disproportionately pushed out of the university through clandestine gatekeeping when either some of us were denied tenure or others were not retained in comparison to our white colleagues. Yet others were tired of the university’s contradictory claim to racial equity while reinforcing racial inequity all at once. 

The More Covert Aspects of Academic Oppression

It is well established that overt forms of academic oppression compound existing racial inequities scholars of color face in society and negatively impact the capacity of faculty and graduate students of color to develop their research and realize their publishing goals. These include mentorship structures that fail to align with their needs and interests, the impact of dominant white cultural norms, and the racial biases that underline evaluations of research and teaching 

Yet the covert aspects of academic oppression often go unrecognized and unaddressed.  For example, women and queer of color scholars writing about sexism and homophobia often integrate an intersectional focus on how sexism and homophobia operate with racism, all at once. In doing so, they tend to produce more interdisciplinary research. This is because researching how multiple forms of oppression intersect in distinct ways within each specific research context often requires asking previously ignored research questions, exploring understudied themes, and bumping up against status quo theories and methods. 

Black scholars who study environmental disasters also tend to rely on an intersectional lens that accounts for underlying racial injustices. For example, Black scholars have shown creatively integrated analyses of how Hurricane Katrina, an environmental disaster, disproportionately impacted poor Black communities, accentuated historical legacies of anti-Blackness, and compounded Black trauma on the level of the psyche. In this sense, these scholars are pushing the boundaries of environmental studies that conventionally lack such a focus. 

Such intersectional research necessitates crafting creative, less conventional, interdisciplinary methodologies. However, when such scholars develop imaginative theories and methodologies to pursue their research questions across disciplines and interdisciplines, they often face disproportionate levels of scrutiny compared to their white colleagues. Such inequity is especially hard to challenge or unseat because it operates through a clandestine process.  

A closer look at clandestine methodological gatekeeping

For over two decades, I have been documenting an ongoing pattern whereby gatekeeping evaluators, rather than explicitly and honestly admitting that they do not consider such alternative or creative methodologies legitimate, instead deem the research or analysis “not scholarly enough” or “lacking sophistication.” In other words, clandestine methodological gatekeeping practices obscure the privileging of conventional methodologies over those that challenge the status quo by delegitimizing the excellence of the research study at large, thus devaluing it based upon apparent scholarly grounds. Here, a disconnect between the kinds of methodologies necessary for the particular types of research projects many scholars of color tend to conduct and the kinds of methodologies academic gatekeepers tend to value, covertly reinforces explicit structural inequities. As a result, clandestine methodological gatekeeping compounds pre existing additional scrutiny and, in some cases, exclusions that scholars of color experience.

This academic oppression is present in both the social sciences and the humanities. The question of what constitutes “real” literary analysis in the field of English, for example, is where some gatekeepers may question whether scholars of color who address the limitations of traditional literary analysis by incorporating a cultural studies analysis of public artwork into their textual interpretation are the right fit for this field.

In the field of History, archival research is the end-all-be-all methodology. Dominant structures in this field tend to police what qualifies as an archive. One must travel to what is considered to be a “legitimate archive,” that is, a place where an historian goes to gather primary sources. Yet for some scholars, especially scholars of color, archives including documents about their historical projects simply do not exist. If a scholar is conducting historical research about Arab American women’s activism for example, they may not be able to find an established archive on this topic. Instead, as many historians of color have had to do, they would create their own archive by traveling to multiple homes of Arab American families across the country who might have saved letters or documents. Given the lack of data, they might have to integrate alternative methodologies, such as listening to songs or reading novels for embedded stories, collecting protest leaflets from activist organizations, and engaging in conversations with feminist elders about their memories. 

Yet the discipline’s gatekeeping tends to render historical methods that take the scholar outside the box of the “Archive” with a capital-A as not “real History.” This especially harms scholars of color who are striving to document historical themes that have not yet been archived such as non-normative Latinx kinship formations in the 1960’s. Such scholars often build their own archives by collecting personal stories, photos, songs, and magazines while conducting oral histories. Historians of color, who disproportionately craft their own archives, especially if those archives span conventional notions of geographic fields and temporal periods (i.e.” I am a 19th century Historian of the United States”) tend to face extra scrutiny at the time of evaluations, job market opportunities, promotions, and publishing avenues compared to those who visited a traditional archive. Although this is changing, in part due to the growing significance of digital history and archives, evaluations tend to be led by senior white historians who may not be as open to such shifts.

Interestingly, in the interdisciplines (Ethnic Studies, American Studies, Gender Studies) there tends to be more value and recognition of the different kinds of research that interdisciplinary scholars of color can provide…but they are severely limited in any methodological training to support this. So, while scholars with positions in interdisciplinary programs have more room to craft interdisciplinary methodologies, their research still bumps up against normative approaches. The two interdisciplinary programs where I received tenure prided themselves on hiring diverse, interdisciplinary junior faculty who integrated multiple, diverse methodologies that were necessary for developing their particular research aims. Yet institutionally, little mentorship existed to support junior scholars in rationalizing their interdisciplinary methodologies in the face of institutional evaluations and reviews that show privilege for certain disciplinary methods even in the name of interdisciplinarity. 

The methodological gatekeeping of several senior colleagues, many of whom upheld a primary allegiance to the disciplines that defined their own training (i.e. History, English, or Psychology), often determined that the publications of outstanding junior scholars of color (who often went on to receive major book awards) were not worthy of tenure or promotion. In this sense, some interdisciplinary contexts purport to value creative, alternative methodologies (i.e. an integration of art history and literary methodologies) while still continuing to deem them less scholarly than research developed through one disciplinary methodology (i.e. literary). 

Alternatively, they might simply lack the necessary tools or understanding to evaluate them holistically. Immersed in disciplinary methodologies, staunchly disciplinary scholars lack expertise in how interdisciplinary scholars integrate diverse methodologies and forge distinct interdisciplinary methodologies relevant to each distinct project. Therefore, they are ill equipped to comprehensively determine the viability of interdisciplinary studies. 

Rationalizing our Methodologies is a Powerful Act

Since methodological gatekeeping is one of the more covert ways scholars of color experience inequity, we especially need more training in how to persevere through it. The need to persevere through academic gatekeeping barriers, without minimizing our contributions out of fear of publication rejection, promotion failure, or job loss, is painfully pressing.  Still, it’s like walking a tightrope between the act of legitimizing our research methodologies without compromising our perspectives and ideas.

The Liberate Your Research workshops for Scholars were developed to navigate this tightrope and create more learning and conversation among BIPOC scholars on how to embody the practices that rationalize their methodologies and move them beyond the gatekeepers successfully. Through a series of exercises and perspective shifts, scholars of color learn how to own their core theories and analysis and also how to rationalize them through a process of deepening our understanding of our own theories and methods and naming. The development of creative names for our methodologies creates a container that affirms our path-breaking, unconventional approaches to research. I learned from novelist Octavia Butler that naming something is a pathway to understanding, explaining, and writing it. 

As an example, when I was documenting life stories (an established form of ethnography) for one of my books about Arab American women’s activism, I stated that I was “documenting activist histories.” This allowed me to rationalize why I documented the stories in a particular way. Rather than a conventional oral history, for example, that maps an interviewee’s story from childhood through adulthood, I focused only on aspects of their life stories that would help readers understand how they became political activists, what they desire, believe, and experience as activists, and how each individual story relates to other activist stories in their group and broader Arab American community needs and goals. By naming and claiming my distinct approach to oral histories, I provided a rationalization for mapping and analyzing only fragmented or partial stories in relation to activist and community collectives rather than composite life histories. I then made explicit connections that justified why this particular methodology was necessary in relation to my larger research aims and questions about Arab American activism. 

While scholars learn to take ownership of their core perspectives, research aims, and goals, while simultaneously persevering through gatekeeping (getting funded, completing dissertations, landing jobs, and publishing) they are trained in how to write and research without internalizing gatekeeping discourses that bleed into our psyche, leading us to believe for example that we are imposters, not real scholars. Instead, we learn how not to compromise our voices, our messages, and our souls. 

Rationalizing our methodologies is a powerful act, not only to survive through clandestine gatekeeping practices, but to thrive confidently and with a formidable sense of inner and collective power.

Author: <a href="" target="_self">Nadine Naber</a>

Author: Nadine Naber

Nadine Naber, PhD. is a public scholar, author, and teacher from Al-Salt, Jordan and the Bay Area of California. Nadine has been co-creating connections, research, and activism among scholars of color and social movements for the past 25 years. She is author/co-author of five books, an expert author for the United Nations; co-founder of the organization Mamas Activating Movements for Abolition and Solidarity (MAMAS); co-author of the forthcoming book, *Pedagogies of the Radical Mother* (Haymarket Press); and founder of programs such as the Arab and Muslim American Studies Program at the University of Michigan and the Arab American Cultural Center at the University of Illinois.


Leave a Reply

Discover more from Liberate Your Research

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading