- Women of color in academia have had conflicting reactions to the Netflix series “The Chair.”
- Some felt the storyline of Yaz’s tenure case undermined the challenges academics of color face.
- The show inspired debate about whether it’s important for fictional depictions to be realistic.
Nikki Brown was prepared to settle in and binge-watch all six episodes of
‘s “The Chair.”
Starring Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim, an English professor who was recently appointed to lead the department, “The Chair” is a dramedy set on a fictional predominantly white college campus, Pembroke University — a place that has no shortage of secrets, politics, and theatrics to propel the plot forward.
After watching so many medical dramas and law office procedurals, Brown said she was finally ready for a show set in her domain. The fact that “The Chair” not only starred a woman of color, but one as revered as Oh, was only further confirmation that the show was a must-watch.
But after the first few episodes, Brown, a Black female associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky, found herself skipping ahead in the Netflix show.
“Some things just didn’t make sense to me,” Brown told Insider.
She noted that when Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), a Black professor who faces major obstacles in obtaining tenure at the hands of older faculty at Pembroke, was suddenly offered the coveted status at Yale University, it was among the show’s most far-fetched plot points.
Brown felt that it undercut Yaz’s struggle and the very real challenges Black women in the academy face to obtain the esteemed status.
From describing the show as “triggering” to reveling in its comedic and romantic moments, women of color in academia have had varying and often ambivalent reactions to “The Chair.”
But what has emerged as a steady throughline in conversations with them is that “The Chair” broaches the fact that women of color face immense barriers to advancement in academia and as a result are pushed out of and underrepresented in higher education.
Women of color experienced ‘visceral’ reactions to microaggressions in ‘The Chair’
Many of the barriers academics of color face were recently splashed in headlines due to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure case at University of North Carolina.
The 1619 Project creator and Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist was initially denied a tenured position at her alma mater because of pressure from conservatives, who sat on the school’s board.
Hannah-Jones, who would have been the school’s second-ever tenured Black woman professor, ultimately rejected the school’s months-long delayed tenure offer to take a position as the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Reporting at Howard University, a historically Black institution.
Stories similar to Hannah-Jones’ were also brought to the public sphere after #BlackintheIvory, a hashtag that invited Black academics to share their experiences, went viral last year at the height of the country’s so-called racial reckoning.
However, “The Chair” has presented another opportunity for those both in and out of academia to better understand the difficult and sometimes toxic environment it can be for the people underrepresented in it.
“I definitely was experiencing these visceral reactions to the show, mostly frustration and anger at being able to relate to it so much and hating that it was so true to what many of us have to go through,” Angel Jones, an Afro-Latina assistant professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, told Insider.
Jones, whose research focuses on how Black women and children respond to microaggressions, felt that the series “let white women off the hook” in regards to how it depicted the microaggressions and poor treatment Yaz faced. Still, she saw her own experience and the experiences of women of color she’s worked with reflected throughout the show, particularly when an older white male professor, played by Bob Balaban, comments on Yaz’s patterned dress.
“As a doctoral student, I became hyper-aware that women of color’s appearance and bodies are constantly judged in the academy,” Jones said. “I remember putting my hair in a certain way to seem professional and to avoid people’s comments about it.”
Another college educator, who asked to be anonymous because she’s applying for a tenure-track position and is concerned about retaliation, echoed Jones’ sentiments about her appearance being heavily critiqued as a Black woman in the academy.
“If I wear a headwrap or African headdress, my appearance is always up for discussion,” the junior faculty member, who completed her PhD three years ago, said. “I would always get these comments, like ‘what are we wearing today?'”
A lack of adjunct faculty is part of what ‘The Chair’ gets wrong
“The Chair,” co-created by Annie Julia Wyman, who earned a PhD in English at Harvard University, gets a lot right, said various women of color in academia.
Ernabel Demillo, a journalism professor and chair of the Communications Department at St. Peter’s University in New Jersey, said that when she was going up for tenure, it was the fellow women of color in her department who showed her the most support and aided her throughout the process. As a result, the relationship between Ji-Yoon and Yaz was one she felt reflected her own experiences.
“When I was going up for tenure, the professors of color were my biggest champions,” Demillo said, adding that as an Asian American chair, it was gratifying to “finally see myself represented on screen.”
However, many pointed out various unrealistic depictions of their experiences in academia for the sake of moving the storyline along. Chief among these points were the lack of adjunct faculty in the show.
According to the American Association of University Professors, more than 70% of instructional staff appointments in US higher education are contingent, non-tenure-track positions. Compared to tenured professors, adjunct faculty’s positions are more precarious, pay less, and often don’t include benefits like health insurance.
While colleges have been hiring more white women and people of color in recent years, they are often hiring them for adjunct, not tenured, positions. Black women accounted for a little more than 2% of tenured associate and full professors in 2019, the most recent year for which data was available. For other women of color, the numbers are equally dismal.
The pandemic has only further exacerbated the plight of adjunct faculty, who often don’t have protections to prevent them from teaching in-person or sick leave.
“There’s the misconception that we made it just because we earned our PhDs and that after getting the advanced degree, we don’t have any problems,” Jones said, adding that in her previous position at another institution, the majority of the adjunct faculty were Black women.
“But we’ve been experiencing racial battle fatigue and psychological distress because of subpar working conditions. Our health is literally on the line,” she added.
‘The Chair’ glosses over the demanging tenure process, which might be a huge mistake
Racheida Lewis, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Georgia, said even though it would be “unfair” to expect “The Chair” to get every detail about academia correct, she, like Brown, wished they hadn’t glossed over the grueling tenure process.
“Having Yaz get poached by Yale negates her entire storyline about being worried over tenure,” Lewis told Insider. “As we see with Yaz, and as we see with Hannah Nikole-Jones, you can be an exceptional person and still be denied tenure. There’s a disproportionate amount of brilliant Black women who don’t get tenure.”
At the heart of some of the critique have been questions about whether it’s even important for fictional depictions of academia to be realistic. The series, afterall, doesn’t bill itself as a documentary, but rather a work of fiction, which enables its writers to take creative liberties. And as several people, including Lewis, brought up, doctors don’t watch “Grey’s Anatomy” and expect the show’s creators to get all the details right.
“I noticed the exaggerations because this is my field, and you can’t blame them for not getting everything right because there needs to be a certain level of dramatization for entertainment purposes,” Lewis admitted.
“But I do think the show has a responsibility to some extent to portray things accurately because even though it’s fiction, it’s telling the story of things people are actively dealing with today and some people are triggered by those things.”