This qualitative study sought to understand the ways classism, as it intersects with racism and sexism, affects how low wage-earning women negotiate their work world in the academy and the way the academy functions to create, maintain, and reproduce the context within which oppression is able to emerge. Field research took place at State University, a pseudonym for a Land Grant, Research Extensive institution located in the Southwest. Through the lenses of critical theory and critical feminist theory the stories of six women employed as custodial workers, nine administrators employed at State University, and two State University employees involved in the community’s Living Wage initiative, were analyzed.
The lives of women employed as custodial workers are largely unremarked and undocumented, and the ways in which their work serves to make the academy possible have been unacknowledged. This study found that the job of cleaning in the traditional higher education environment is laced with challenges. The nature of the academy, the ethos and operation of State University, and the interlocking systems of classism, racism and sexism fuse together arrangements of power that simultaneously obliterate and render these women agonizingly visible through systems of oppression. In an environment where honor is conferred upon “the educated,” the custodial participants, whose opportunities were limited due to their social locations, exist on the border of the academy. Their marginality is reinforced daily, as they are in constant contact with higher-status individuals who perform raced, classed, and gendered behaviors that are woven into the fabric of our society. The study also found that the custodial participants and the university administrators are locked in a relationship of mutual distrust. State University administrators do not trust the custodians and the custodians do not trust State University administrators. Furthermore, existing at both the literal and metaphorical “bottom” of the organization, custodians are among the first to feel the impact of major institutional shifts, such as increases in student and faculty bodies, and large-scale economic recovery initiatives. Additionally, I reconceptualize the notion of “borrowed power” to name the impermanence of the authority which Black custodial supervisors, and people of color in general, hold in our racialized society. Finally, the data decidedly point to White male students as primary actors and architects of the overtly hostile work environment within which the women work. The custodial participants negotiate these challenges with facility. They find creative ways to resist and to negotiate the obstacles they face. Unfortunately, they also occasionally internalize negative messages and are complicit in their marginality. Administrators who participated in the study were aware of these conditions, but remained silent on the issue of resolution.
Through various intentional (if unconscious) State University policies, practices, rules, norms, behaviors, and structures that sometimes act in insidious, hidden ways, the dominant groups’ interests continue to be pursued while the interests, needs, and even the very presence of marginal members is ignored. Thus, systems of domination and subordination are produced, reproduced, validated, and institutionalized in the academy. This process is presented in a Conceptual Map of How Systems of Oppression Flourish and are Re/produced in the Academy.
The findings of this study contribute to existing bodies of knowledge that discuss racial, gender, and economic inequality. Yet it opens new lines of inquiry into the overlapping conditions of gender, racial, and economic marginality as they impact the lives of women custodial workers in the academy. The findings issue a clarion call for institutions of higher education, one of our nation’s longstanding and respected foci of social change, to tap into its available expertise to end oppression, beginning in its own “backyard.”