“You Don’t Look Like a Professor” - Higher Education
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“You Don’t Look Like a Professor”


It is 8 a.m. and I am rushing to the office for a meeting. I enter the building, briskly walking. I hear someone talking in the background. The voice grows louder. “Excuse me, are you lost?” Now, I realize that this person is talking to me. I stop and say, “no.”

He approaches me. “Can I help you find someone?” I respond, “No thanks, I am good.” He responds, “Wait, who are you meeting with?” I finally stop and say, “I am Dr. Garcia, I am going to my office.”

A surprised look appears on his face and he responds: “Oh! You don’t look like a professor.”

My day successfully starts off with a gendered-raced microaggression and the process of undoing the pain that follows such interaction. I still must enter my office to work on a project that combats the very topic I just experienced.

Chester Pierce, a professor of education and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, first coined microaggressions in 1970 as “subtle and stunning” assaults people of color encounter based on their race, assaults that have a cumulative effect over the course of an individual’s life.

This was not the first time, nor would it be the last time, this happened to me. Unfortunately, experiencing microaggressions for women of color in institutions of higher education is nothing new.

As a professor, my research focuses on race and equity issues and student outcomes. I have the difficult task of teaching students to recognize systems of oppression and the implications of those systems on students’ educational outcomes. Microaggressions tend to be a popular topic to give name to racial incidents that occur for students of color.

We have come to recognize what is consider a microaggression, but the big task that remains is how do we contest such incidents?

Daniel G. Solórzano, professor of education and director of the UCLA Center for Critical Race Studies, and Lindsay Perez Huber, associate professor of education at California State University – Long Beach, have dedicated their research efforts to exploring ways to respond to microaggressions. Their solution is racial micro-affirmations, or “everyday verbal and non-vernal interactions, visuals or representations that affirm, acknowledge and value people of color.”

Racial micro-affirmations are not to diminish the trauma one experiences when dealing with racism, but rather they are tools to support the experiences of people of color.

What are the racial micro-affirmations I utilize to process microaggressions to create healthy responses?

I often read through my pain. When I feel most alone, I turn to Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, which documents the realities women of color experience as graduate students and faculty members. This foundational text supports my process, validates the injustice I experience and affirms the voices of women of color. 

I pay it forward. As a beneficiary and alum of the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, whose goal is to increase the attainment of graduate studies for underrepresented students and diversify the professoriate. I dedicate time to mentor students through their research projects, the process of applying to graduate school, and what to expect once admitted. Witnessing the bright minds of the future affirms the importance of my research and teaching efforts.

Finally, I share my personal experiences. As Audre Lorde, a feminist and poet, stated, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

To some, I may not look like a professor, but I do not compromise myself for someone else’s idea of what I should be. I offer this affirmation to the future generations of women of color professors.

Dr. Nichole Margarita Garcia is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. You can follow her on Twitter @DrNicholeGarcia.


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