Nikole Hannah-Jones and the Dangers of Speaking Up

Key Takeaways:

  • Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure at UNC ─ despite being qualified and receiving support from her colleagues.
  • Instead, she was punished for her outspoken work about slavery in the U.S.
  • Women and racial minorities are often punished for speaking out about diversity, especially compared to how white men are treated.

NOTE: UNC reversed their decision on June 30 and granted Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure after all.  However, she announced on July 1 that she will instead take a faculty position at Howard University, where she will be hired with tenure.

This month, the University of North Carolina (UNC) denied Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure as a professor of journalism, instead offering her a temporary contract.

This happened despite support from her department and dean. She holds the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism position; the previous two faculty in this position were awarded tenure, so her case is unusual.

What happened?

She was not denied tenure due to low qualifications. If anything, she is overqualified. In 2017, she was a Macarthur fellow, and in 2020, she won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, among other accolades.

Instead, she was denied tenure because the UNC board of trustees, facing conservative backlash and criticism, decided to ignore her qualifications for the job, go against the support of her colleagues and supervisors, and deny her the position. Specifically, critics argued against her due to her involvement with The 1619 Project, an ongoing initiative through The New York Times Magazine that examines the historic role of slavery in the United States as well as its present-day implications. 

In other words, because she spoke up ─ about things a lot of people don’t want to hear ─ she was punished for it. From research, we know that this is common among minorities.

David Hekman and his colleagues studied what happens when minorities speak up ─ specifically about diversity[1]. They examined this two ways: first, among 362 executives, and then in a controlled experiment with 307 participants.  Both studies found the same results: When women and/or racial minorities were seen as vocally valuing diversity, their job performance was rated lower ─ compared to when white males did the same thing. Vocally valuing diversity was measured in a few different ways, such as if the person hired other minorities, as well as if their peers perceived them to be diversity proponents.

It seems that there is a double standard for white men compared to women and racial minorities; white men can get away with saying things that others cannot. This is similar to what I have written about before: Minorities are punished for making mistakes that white men are not punished for. This double standard minorities face manifests in many ways.

The results of Hekman’s study parallel what happened to Nikole Hannah-Jones. Just like in the study, Hannah-Jones spoke up vocally about diversity (through The 1619 Project). And just like in the study, her performance evaluation suffered (specifically, by being denied tenure).  In the study, white males were not punished for the same behavior; one has to wonder if Hannah-Jones’ race and gender played a part in how she was treated.

Much research on diversity and inclusion seems to focus on what not to do; in this case, the research suggests that minorities should be speak up about diversity (or perhaps about anything that might rock in the boat). 

But I would like to turn the suggestion on its head.

Instead, I argue this research points out what others should not do. People should not hold minorities to double standards and punish them for speaking out. People often don’t realize they are doing this ─ so being cognizant and thoughtful about your decisions is important. Let’s not put the onus on minorities to correct for the mistakes and mistreatment of others. Together, we can be better!


[1] Hekman, D. R., Johnson, S. K., Der Foo, M., & Yang, W. (2017). Does diversity-valuing behavior result in diminished performance ratings for non-White and female leaders? Academy of Management Journal, 60, 771–797.





Image Credit: abraji_

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