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What Netflix's 'The Chair' Gets Right About Being A Woman Of Color In Academia


There is a new show on Netflix that may have caught your eye.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Oh, there she is.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Our first lady chair.

SANDRA OH: (As Ji-Yoon Kim) Woman. I'm not going to sugarcoat this. We're in dire crisis.

KHALID: It's called "The Chair," and it stars Sandra Oh, who plays an English lit professor who finds herself the first woman of color to chair her department. To avoid spoilers, let's put it this way. The road ahead for Professor Ji-Yoon Kim in a largely white, Ivy League-ish, male setting is not easy. And it's an experience Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen can relate to. She's an associate professor of sociology, who was the first Asian American woman to chair her department at Biola University in Southern California. Her work focuses on race and ethnicity in film, television and new media. And she recently wrote an op-ed in The LA Times about why this show resonated with her. Dr. Yuen joins us now to share some more thoughts. Welcome to WEEKEND EDITION.

NANCY WANG YUEN: Thank you for having me, Asma.

KHALID: Just how much did you personally relate to what Sandra Oh's character faced?

YUEN: I cringed, and I laughed. And so it was painful, and then it was funny. Yeah, so many feelings.

KHALID: I mean, were there moments when you were watching "The Chair" and thinking, oh, this is so similar to what I've actually experienced in academia? I mean, what was one of those moments?

YUEN: When I started as chair, I actually really dreaded it. I was scared. I didn't want to kind of step into a new role that I knew would be a challenge - and not just a challenge, but, you know, where I would be one of only in all my rooms. I mean, all the rooms I was in, I was the only woman of color. When I was watching the show, I saw that Sandra Oh's character, Ji-Yoon Kim, said that she felt like she had been given a ticking time bomb - right? - as a woman. And that really felt like that's my experience, because it felt like I was there to troubleshoot and to solve problems that were - sometimes felt impossible.

KHALID: In some ways, it was kind of this - she was inheriting essentially a failed department, and she struggled to find support for some of her decisions from her colleagues. You know, you wrote in your piece that a lot of people of color find themselves in situations where they're just frankly not set up for success. What did you mean by that?

YUEN: Women of color - they're not seen necessarily stereotypically as the leader - right? - because the stereotype in most places, including academia, is that the leader looks like a white man. And so for someone to step into that role and to oftentimes receive stereotypes or even ideas that they don't belong there - it's a really hard place to then establish yourself. And for Asian American women, being nice is a stereotype - right? - that Asian women are to be nice. But then at the same time, those kind of qualities are not what leaders are thought of. If you're too nice, you're too accommodating, then you're not thought of as a, you know, effective leader. There's no winning situation there.

KHALID: And you've written also about this idea that there's a specific phenomenon - right? - called the glass cliff that essentially elevates women of color to positions of power in really volatile moments. Explain that to me.

YUEN: Yeah, so there's this documented phenomena where places, businesses, will elevate and hire women and people of color into positions because, you know, they're in crisis. And then they're like, OK, let's just try to stick in this person and see if they can actually solve it. But that kind of scenario essentially sets them up to fall off the glass cliff. And so similar to the glass ceiling - right? - the glass ceiling's the idea that people, you know, are not going to be able to rise up as much as their qualifications because of their identities - right? - because they are from marginalized identities. And so this glass cliff is another similar phenomenon.

KHALID: I see. So, you know, the show has these subtle - well, I should say maybe not so subtle references to race, but there's also a lot in there about gender and just the lengths that female professors have to go to to prove themselves. Do you feel like that gender dynamic that was portrayed in the show is accurate?

YUEN: I know that even in student evaluations, you know, women are seen that they have to face the nurturer, you know, kind of stereotypes - that if they're too harsh, then students will rate them poorly because they expect mothers in the classrooms rather than professors. And so there's definitely a lot of gendered barriers that female professors face in academia.

KHALID: You know, there's this random moment in the show where someone makes an off-the-cuff comment to Professor Kim about her not being in the sciences and, you know, making a crack about the fact that he's not just saying this to her because she's Asian. It was not central to the plot, but it caught my ear as a fellow Asian American who also did not study science in college. You also did not study the sciences, and you've said that people were often surprised to see an Asian American student in the humanities. What do you mean by that? And how do you kind of counter that stereotype?

YUEN: I think that this comes down to the perpetual foreigner stereotype that Asians face, in terms of that we are not associated with Western things. And so when someone looks at me, and I tell them I'm, you know, majoring in literature, I'm writing poetry - in college, I had strangers say, why aren't you majoring in math because that's what they thought that my, you know, natural, quote-unquote, "natural" inclination should be. The idea of someone teaching English literature when their English is suspect, because they're only thought of as foreigners, these kind of combinations really set up Asian American professors in the humanities for lots and lots of barriers and misunderstandings and racism.

KHALID: Dr. Nancy Wang Yeun is an associate professor of sociology at Biola University in California. Thank you so much for being with us.

YUEN: Thank you, Asma.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.