Is There a Place for Women of Color in Western Academia?

An analysis of Netflix’s“The Chair”and its depiction of racism and misogyny in higher education. Spoilers for season 1 of “The Chair”!

Classical music plays over images of a picture perfect campus at Pembrook University. Inside a particularly collegiate looking building are portraits of white men and shelves of dusty old books. Ji-Yoon Kim, played by Sandra Oh, displaying a mix of nervousness and confidence, walks past these portraits and up the stairs. She unlocks the door to her new office, hangs up her coat. A joke nameplate with the phrase Fucker in charge of you fucking fucks was left for her by a colleague/friend, causing her to smile. Ji-Yoon, almost triumphantly, takes a seat at her desk, only for the chair to be broken. 

“What the fuck?” Ji-Yoon exclaims as she loses balance and falls to the ground. 

The chair can be interpreted as a symbol for Pembrook’s English department: it’s essentially in pieces and has been for a while. Ji-Yoon, the first woman of color to be Chair, is now responsible for all of it, even if it means sacrificing her own career and personal life. 

“I don’t feel like I inherited an English department,” Ji-Yoon rants mid-season, “I feel like someone handed me a bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it exploded.”

What the fuck, indeed. 

From the start of the show, it’s clear that the English department Ji-Yoon inherits is already on the descent. The courses being taught are no longer interesting to students; lectures about Western classics such as Herman Melville taught by older professors are less popular than classes with more unconventional perspectives and structure, though there are few of the latter. 

The only other woman of color in the English department, Yasmin McKay, teaches one of the more popular classes, but struggles to receive tenure due to the structural barriers that hold her back. Ji-Yoon’s friend, colleague and potential love interest, Bill, a professor who used to attract students taking English courses, deals with his career falling apart. Joan Hambling, a white woman, is upset because her office was moved to the basement and she is receiving negative reviews of her teaching.

 As Chair, Ji-Yoon has to address all these issues and more, all while being torn between what she wants to do versus what the bureaucracy of the collegiate institution demands her to do. 

The most prominent example of this is shown through Yasmin and Ji-Yoon’s intertwining storyline. A main plot point is that Ji-Yoon supports Yasmin, a Black female professor in the department, and wants to appoint her for the role of distinguished lecturer. 

However, it ends up being the Dean, a white man, who makes the final decision to appoint David Duchovny for the role, though it is implied that is traditionally the role of the department’s Chair. The twist is ridiculous — seriously, the guy from X-Files? — but the show’s over-the-top and comedic nature often works in favor of its central themes. 

While the show also tackles issues such as cancel culture and ageism, its primary focus is on the intersections between racism and misogyny in higher education. Throughout the show, both Ji-Yoon and Yasmin have to deal with acts of discrimination that are subtle or overt. Their acts of goodwill are overlooked, they aren’t given the same academic credit as their white colleagues, and their methods of teaching, often not as rigid as their white male counterparts, are disregarded as frivolous or unnecessary. 

These women are underappreciated, dismissed, or completely ignored. Thus, it’s evident that the English department at Pembrooke, a stand-in for a real life Ivy League college, is built to benefit white men and their teachings. There is little to no room for growth within Pembrook’s English department, especially if that means moving beyond the white male perspective. 

from left: Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), Yasmin McKay (Nana Mensah), Holland Taylor (Joan Hambling)

Source

The show also demonstrates a student body that yearns for more diverse content and critiques the system that perpetuates discrimination. Students support Yasmin, but resent Ji-Yoon for adhering to the department rules, as shown through how they go to Ji-Yoon’s office to let her know that there will be protests if Yasmin does not receive tenure. 

The students mention that Yasmin is in a vulnerable position, not only as a woman, but as a woman of color at a primarily white institution. 

Ji-Yoon replies with “I know,” a simple but revealing phrase: even before the events of the show and all that Ji-Yoon has to take on, she is tired because her journey had been riddled with obstacles, which most of her colleagues never had to encounter throughout their careers. 

The Chair ends on a bittersweet note. The white male faculty of the English department (and Joan) are upset at the way Ji-Yoon acts as chair, and in the final episode vote to replace her (though Joan, at the last minute, changes her mind). 

Upset at this outcome, but keeping a professional demeanor, Ji-Yoon nominates Joan for the position. 

I found this ending frustrating. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Ji-Yoon would have had a similar fate if she was a white man. Would she have been judged as harshly? Would her efforts have been so easily dismissed? Would she have had more of a chance to grow and succeed in the position? 

Additionally, a white woman chairing the English department, for me, is not particularly revolutionary, especially when it came at the expense of an Asian woman whose hard work and dedication was so easily dismissed. 

However, I would argue that is an intentional choice: the audience is meant to feel frustration, even anger, at the current state of Pembrook’s English department. After all, the value of literature lies in its potential to offer new realities and different understandings of the world through a perspective other than one’s own; how ridiculous is it that works written by white Western men (and the occasional woman) are upheld as classics, works of brilliance, and must-reads for students of English while non-white, non-Western authors and works not written by men are not as well respected? 

Creating English curricula that are more diverse, inclusive, and intersectional is a step in the right direction as is more recognition and respect for faculty of color and female-identifying academics, but this needs to extend beyond to more systemic and structural change as well. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been pushes towards these types of changes throughout the years. 

The efforts of those who pioneered changes in the past, such as the creation of Ethnic Studies programs which evolved from the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, or even those in the present who work in the margins of their disciplines, should serve as inspiration for the future, and a testament to the possibility of a more inclusive, equitable, and multifaceted academic space. 

In a final scene, Ji-Yoon and her class discuss the metaphor of hope in Emily Dickinson’s work. Ji-Yoon allows her students to provide their interpretations of Dickinson’s work, which serves as a voiceover for scenes of Ji-Yoon and other characters moving on and enjoying their lives. 

“Why does [Emily Dickinson] describe [hope] as a tune without words?” Ji-Yoon asks. 

A student replies: “Maybe hope looks different for different people. It can’t have specific words, just a melody….or maybe even just a beat, a sign of life.”

The Chair doesn’t have the answers to how academia can become more equitable, diverse, and inclusive, but it does leave the audience with a comforting sense of possibility — a sign of life, so to speak. 

 

Staff Writer

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