Do Students’ Racist And Sexist Stereotypes Affect Your Teaching?

Note: this blog post was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae (here)Dr. Manya Whitaker is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College and a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted.

Do Their Stereotypes Affect Your Teaching?

“Stereotype threat” is a well-known social psychological construct in which people live down or up to the expectations others have of them based their gender, race, age, or other such characteristics. As professors we are careful — or we should be — not to translate our personal beliefs about students’ capabilities into our expectations of how they will perform academically, but we rarely think about how students’ expectations of us affect our performance.

In particular, faculty who are women and/or members of racial minority groups run the risk of becoming stereotype threatened: feeling anxiety about whether they will either confirm or disprove students’ stereotypical beliefs.

If you don’t think students — or all people — have ideas about what a professor looks and sounds like, try this exercise: Ask a few people who don’t know you’re an academic to describe the “average” professor. Undoubtedly they will paint a picture of an older white male who may or may not be wearing a tweed jacket.

That description is true for only some of the 58 percent of full-time faculty who are white males. And it’s utterly false for the remaining 42 percent of us, who must do our jobs knowing that at least some of our students are surprised to see someone who looks like us standing in front of them. We are always competing with students’ expectations of what we should be teaching, saying, doing, and assigning. And when we don’t perform according to their (usually) unspoken expectations, we pay the price in our course evaluations.

To complicate matters, students have different expectations for faculty of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Asian professors, for example, are supposed to be meek but very intelligent while Black professors are expected to be loud and aggressive. Males and females also face far different challenges in the classroom. Men are stereotyped as smarter than women so it’s no wonder that students often challenge women about their qualifications, and evaluate them more harshly than men.

Faculty of color, female faculty, and especially female faculty of color often choose to respond in one of two ways:

  • Confirm students’ stereotypes. Most professors want to build strong relationships with students and it’s much simpler to do that within existing frameworks than to start anew. Challenging students’ beliefs can create tension, and sometimes that tension can cause students to disengage. Consequently, some faculty perform a certain “act” that aligns with what students expect of them. I’ve seen this most often in Black female colleagues who embrace the stereotype of the loud, sexualized Black woman who is always ready to argue. These women leverage the archetypes of Jezebel and Sapphire as a point of entry into the white imagination. From there, they can construct relationships with non-Black students from a position of familiarity.
  • Disprove their beliefs. This response is more common, albeit less intentional. I don’t think female and nonwhite faculty are enumerating all the expectations students have of them and then trying to do the exact opposite. Marginalized professors usually are just vigilantly being themselves. In other words, they aren’t actively trying to disprove stereotypes, but they are aware of how they counter students’ expectations. Women who are stereotyped as less intelligent might begin class by citing their pedigree. Black men who are stereotyped as aggressive or hostile avoid standing too close, speaking too loudly, or using harsh language. Asian faculty who are stereotyped as “naturally smart” might make self-deprecating jokes.

I find both approaches troubling but understandable. Students will perceive you the way you present yourself. Your style of dress, your language, your gender, your height, your skin color — all contribute to students’ perceptions of you. People evaluate others based upon their proximity to their own in-group. The more you are like me, the more I understand you, and the more I like you. The less you are like me, the less I understand you, and the more I have to rely on heuristics to make sense of you.

I advocate a third option. Instead of confirming or disapproving their stereotypes, I just present my real self. I acknowledge that I am Black, young, female, Southern, and a football fan. I tell my outdoor-enthusiast students that I don’t like going outside and have no interest in skiing, climbing, hiking, or anything else of the sort. I am honest in expressing my feelings about living in a very white, very conservative city. Importantly, I don’t recite that autobiography on the first day of class, but weave it into my pedagogy throughout the course. I share pieces of myself as they are relevant.

Students tend to take the pieces they want and leave the rest — which is fine by me. They take the pieces to which they can relate, and that connection becomes the foundation of our relationship. Those points of overlap allow me to comfortably say things like, “Just because I’m Southern doesn’t mean …,” or, more commonly, “Just because I’m Black doesn’t mean …”

Those introductory clauses are my attempts to clarify who I am, likely in response to a student comment or question about urban families and contexts (I teach about social and political issues in education). I use myself as a model of contradiction to their stereotypical beliefs about Southerners, Black people, and women. That approach has two benefits: First, it allows me to personalize what students sometimes view as impersonal issues. Second, it allows me to negate stereotypes without explicitly making students feel bad for having stereotypical beliefs (I do my best to avoid the rabbit hole of white guilt).

That is not to say that I avoid conversations about difference. It’s actually quite the contrary. Soft entries like these facilitate in-depth discussions of the intersection of self-identity, cognitive processing, and life experiences. Students aren’t horrified that I’ve acknowledged I’m Black and presented an alternate form of Blackness from what they expected. They are willing and excited to step up and ask themselves why they thought I’d be something I’m not.

While they engage in self-analysis, I engage in self-regulation. I must be careful not to express my anger, hurt, or incredulity when they reveal their stereotypical beliefs. Most of the time, those beliefs are the result of a lack of exposure rather than willful ignorance. It is my responsibility to provide both exposure and opportunities for reflection.

Bias is always present, and nothing I can do will erase the racialized, gendered, and classist structures in which we exist, but I can work toward erasing the racialized, gendered, and classist beliefs that bolster such structures.

By not engaging in a war on stereotypes and instead focusing my energy on cultivating genuine teacher-student relationships, I do indeed force students to confront themselves. When I don’t adhere to their notions of femininity or Blackness, I am prepared to push back against their pushback. When I do happen to confirm their expectations of Black womanhood, I am quick to ask them why that might be the case. In offering students my whole self without cautionary tape restricting our interactions, students begin to understand me beyond my social markers, and thus, begin to understand themselves in relation to their social contexts.

It is not my job to tell students what to believe; it is my job to challenge their beliefs. I’ve found that the best way to enhance their thinking is to complicate it with real-life evidence. I am that evidence.

Series: Sexual Violence In Academia

blog-series

From March to November 2017, we will be featuring a series of weekly blog posts on our Inside Higher Ed column (and republished here) about sexual violence in higher education.  We received many submissions to our call for blog posts on the topic, ranging from personal experiences to teaching about and doing research on sexual violence, from critiques of how universities facilitate sexual violence to recommendations for structural and cultural changes on campuses.  We are especially pleased to note that this series is intersectional to its core, offering narratives that reflect on sexual violence as a manifestation not just of sexism, but also racism, cissexism, heterosexism, ableism, and fatphobia.  Through this series, we aim to amplify the voices of survivors of sexual violence that occurs in academic contexts, to aggravate the academic status quo that facilitates sexual violence, and to advocate for meaningful change in classrooms, research, departments, and at conferences.

We will continue to log new blog posts here as the series proceeds in case you are unable to keep up, and so that you can refer back to the entire series in the future.

Teaching On/And Sexual Violence

Failures of Title IX Policy and Programming

You may also be interested in our past blog posts on or related to sexual violence in academia:

Planning To March For Science? Bring A Mirror.

Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian

Photo credit: Susan Melkisethian

On Earth Day – April 22nd – droves of scientists are scheduled to march in Washington, DC, with satellite marches scheduled around the world. Many organizers and possible attendees have clearly stated that there is nothing political or partisan about the march. (They are just scientists after all!) Rather, they are taking to the streets to challenge the current presidential regime’s threat to scientific advancements, funding, and academic freedom.

As one of my tweeps (Twitter peeps), @DrCBurton asked, “if science isn’t political why the hell march?!?

Figuring out whether the very act of a political march is… well… political is perhaps a secondary concern to the longstanding debate over whether science itself is political. If science supposedly stays out of politics, and vice versa, why go political now?

Another tweep of mine, Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos (@OtherSociology), pulled back an important layer to these debates. “Why are they marching? Oh ‘Science is under attack.’ Read: now White male scientists affected, let’s march.”  (Dr. Zevallos has continued to offer important critiques online.)  Now the scientific profession is taking to political action – namely, against political interference – because the most privileged scientists (i.e., white men) are affected for the first time.

I should be clear that the concerns to be addressed by the upcoming March for Science are important, urgent, and noble. From the march’s main website: “Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”

Scientists are unifying to emphasize the benefits of scientific advancement to all of society, of science education, of accessible scientific research, of public policy informed by science. The future of our nation – particularly in these tense and uncertain times – rests upon inclusive, accessible, and well-funded scientific research and teaching.

“The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue,” that same website continues, “which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter.” They are neither politicians nor activists. Heck, they don’t even bring their values, ideologies, identities, or subjective experiences into their labs. They are objective!

And, that is where many academics of marginalized backgrounds roll their eyes. Being able to see science as an apolitical enterprise is either the product of social privilege or naiveté (or both). To its core, science is an inherently political affair. The systemic exclusion and marginalization of women, people of color, queer and trans people, and working-class and poor people from the profession is a prime example of the political workings of science. Let me cite just a few examples.

Let’s reflect on who gets to become a scientist in the first place. Of course, we must note active, intentional efforts to keep marginalized students out, namely interpersonal discrimination and sexual violence. But, we must also note other factors that contribute to what is known as a “leaky pipeline” – the systemic “leaking out,” particularly of women and racial and ethnic minorities, at each stage in the scientific career pipeline. They are not equally encouraged to take the harder classes, to pursue lab assistantships and internships, to apply for graduate schools (especially the most prestigious programs), to apply for postdocs or present at conferences or any other opportunity that will advance their career.

Even outside of withheld support, marginalized students and scholars face the burdens of lack of role models like themselves, of stereotype threat, which undermines their confidence and, ultimately, their performance. Later, women who have children will be undermined by the “motherhood penalty” – being viewed as less competent and committed than women without children and men without or even with children. I would be remiss to gloss over the rampant sexual harassment that occurs in the sciences and other academic disciplines, with serial predators getting a free pass from universities and academic societies.

Besides getting in the door in the first place, politics are at play in awarding grant funding and citations. Researchers have documented racist and sexist biases in both domains, with women scholars and scholars of color being penalized compared to white men scholars. Women scientists are also penalized in co-authorships, which further hinders their careers. You can’t dismiss these facts as anything other than the curse of not being a white man in a racist and sexist profession.

So, suffice to say, my fellow feminist, queer, trans, and Black and brown scholars in the sciences were well aware of the politics at play within science well before Trump. I cannot help but see the parallels with the recent women’s march, widely attended by white heterosexual cis women who were surprised by the harsh reality of oppression as indicated by this new regime. Women of color, queer and trans women, and poor and working-class women already knew what was up in Amerikkka. Trump has picked a fight with the scientific community, and suddenly white heterosexual cis men scientists know what censuring is, what fear is, what suppression is.

I’m sorry to say that your march is too little and too late. But, if you’re going to march, be sure to bring a mirror. I implore you to take a hard look at the politics within your supposedly apolitical, objective science. These barriers to scientific advancement existed well before the Trump era.

I will close with a few items desperately needed for the March for Science agenda:

  • Address bias in hiring, tenure, promotion, course evaluations, funding, citation rates, and other formal evaluations and opportunities for advancement.
  • Eliminate sexual violence in the classroom, lab, department, and at conferences.
  • Actively promote marginalized students and scholars in the sciences. Yes, that means diversity (numbers), and yes that means inclusion (climate); but, it also means real structural and cultural change.
  • Stand up against political and public interference in the work of your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Perhaps Trump’s threat to the natural sciences is new, but, as a sociologist, I’ve long known threats to eliminate government funding.
  • Commit to reversing the adjunctification of academia and ending the exploitation of contingent faculty.
  • Actively resist new and ongoing threats to academic freedom, including the Right’s new war against tenure. Even if you do not teach seemingly controversial subjects, your colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences are all too familiar with political and public interference in their curricula and scholarship.
  • Make peace with the death of the myths of meritocracy and objectivity in academia. Y’all are scientists; if you are too grown to believe in Santa Clause, then you are certainly too grown to believe that you leave your biases at home and that every scientist has a fair shot at succeeding.
  • Even though you just teach science (not sociology), take note that the majority of white college educated voters cast their votes for Trump – the very threat against which you are now marching. These were students you educated, trained, and mentored and who, in turn, basically voted against science, truth, and critical thinking.  Maybe you could take a little more responsibility in preparing the next generation for living in a diverse, increasingly global society?
  • Next time you march, march for all academics – not just your damn selves.

On Making Black Life Matter in Academia

Source: Elon University.

Source: Elon University.

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column.

In the spring, my campus hosted Alicia Garza, who gave a talk on her work as a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although her talk — including the content and her energy — was affirming, I left campus that night feeling underwhelmed. Had we invited another high-profile activist to the campus for a one-time talk only to pat ourselves on the backs and then return to business as usual?

I left wondering, do Black lives actually matter at my university, or in the academy in general? Do they hold the same value as the lives of white people on campus? Is Blackness as central to campus culture and history, social life, and university policies as whiteness is? As you can imagine, I would not be writing an essay with such a provocative title if I could answer any of these questions affirmatively.

I had hoped that we would have been mobilized, if not at least inspired, to ensure that Black lives matter on my campus, rather than giving in to the temptation of self-congratulation. There is much that my campus, as with any, could do to achieve a racially just university. A crucial starting point is to take Garza’s advice to envision what it would mean for Black life truly to matter on campuses. Many students of color can easily identify evidence of the devaluing of Black lives on campus — I know I could, too. But the more challenging, and likely more important, task is to articulate what, in fact, valuing Black life would entail. And then to make that happen.

Below, I offer a few recommendations for making Black life matter on campus, without relying solely on high-profile speakers of color.

Racial Diversity Beyond the Numbers

The value of Black life at a particular college or university should not be reduced to the “diversity statistics.” At my own institution, the University of Richmond, we tout that 25 percent of the student body is of color — indeed, commendable progress in the past few years. Yet the numbers of Black, Latinx and Asian-American students are far smaller. To be exact, one in every four students may be of color, but only one in every 16 students is Black. A Black student, then, has a one in 16 chance of seeing a face like their own as they move from place to place around campus.

We cannot assume that a diverse student body produces diverse friend groups, organizations or even classrooms. We cannot assume that it eliminates racial segregation, prejudice and stereotypes. We cannot assume that having one student of color for every three white students is enough to build supportive communities for students of color, particularly when you consider the distinct histories, needs and interests of each racial and ethnic minority group. We must ask ourselves what we assume a modestly diverse student body will bring about on the campus; it may be necessary that we intentionally support or facilitate those changes through new policies and programs — rather than hoping that merely a few more students of color than the previous year will create a racially just campus.

Race in the Classroom

We should also assess how to ensure that Black life matters in a classroom context. How does it feel to be a student of color on college campuses where there is a low level of racial and ethnic diversity among the faculty? What if students never have a professor who looks like them in all their years in college? And if they are repeatedly in classes where they are the only minority, or at least one of a small few?

Representation aside, I worry about potential challenges that arise in the classroom for students of color. Could the academic performance of students of color be hindered by stereotype threat — the fear that one is negatively stereotyped because they are a racial or ethnic minority, which becomes a cognitive barrier to one’s schoolwork? Are Black students less likely to seek out help from white professors, fearing conscious or unconscious bias or that the professor will be less helpful than they are for white students? How often do faculty members call upon Black students to give the “Black perspective” on some issue covered in class? How many Black students are assumed to be student-athletes, automatically asked for their team schedule at the beginning of the semester?

I can tell you, as a professor of color, the other side is not without its challenges. I regularly teach on racism, among other systems of oppression, in my sociology courses. Given the risk (and reality) of being labeled “biased” by (white) students — a common criticism professors of color face, while white professors teaching on race are seen as “objective” and even an authority on the subject — I am sensitive to the racial and ethnic diversity, or lack thereof, of my classes. I must emotionally prepare for days when a discussion of racism will feel more like standing trial before a jury of 20 white young adults to defend my life as a Black person. It would be unfair to rely on the sprinkle of students of color to speak up, challenge the white majority in the class or even defend me when I am challenged.

Institutionalized Racial Justice

To borrow from the Virginia Anti-Violence Project, we should regularly ask ourselves the following question: How does this decision/action/policy humanize, liberate and intentionally include people and communities of color?

For every decision that we make at the department, college or university level, or for our classes or student organizations, we should ask ourselves what, if anything, it does for Black lives (good or bad). We must stop relying on seemingly random, meritocratic, race-neutral and “colorblind” ideologies and practices to produce equal outcomes. To overcome white privilege and white supremacy — which are always already at play (some of it even by design) — we must intentionally and systematically prioritize racial and ethnic minorities and communities of color.

A college or university’s strategic plan is a good place to center Black lives — not just with one obligatory statement about diversity and inclusion, but instead in every statement of our goals for the next decade. We can ask ourselves how we make sure that alumni and other donors’ contributions to campus, and the way that we honor them (e.g., named buildings, statues), do not simply reproduce white supremacy and Black invisibility. As we propose curricular changes and new programs, we must take a moment to intentionally assess how the changes impact people of color.

Colleges and universities can also do much more to celebrate Black life that exists on (and around) the campus and to ensure that students of color feel valued, seen, heard, included — that they matter today, that their predecessors matter(ed), and that new cohorts of students of color will matter in the future. We need to do more to guarantee that Black staff members are not mere ghosts who clean our buildings, bodiless arms that serve us food at the dining hall or administrative assistants who simply greet us before we meet with some (white) person seen as having actual importance to our lives. We need to eradicate the sense of isolation, powerlessness, censorship and constraint that faculty of color regularly experience, particularly as we are overrepresented at lower levels (i.e., pretenure and recently tenured) and among contingent faculty. We need to better incorporate Black alumni into campus events and initiatives — especially those who felt excluded during their time at the institution.

To ensure that Black lives matter on your college campus, you must do more than bring in a speaker from the movement, only momentarily suspending the whiteness that pervades everyday life and operations. Many colleges and universities have had the audacity to envision Alicia Garza and other amazing antiracist activists at a campus podium. But, the day after the talk, do these institutions dare to start a campus movement for genuine racial justice? I hope so.

The Unbearable Whiteness Of Mesearch

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.

victor-rayI recently heard of a patronizing slander directed against scholars of color. Research that examines discrimination, racism or simply focuses on communities of color has been dismissed as “me studies” or “mesearch.”

The claim is that we are provincial, our problems are particular and we are stuck navel-gazing at nonuniversal issues. The neologism has roots in deeply held ideas about the inability of people of color to study their communities objectively. That is especially the case if the scholarship locates the problems of nonwhite communities in discrimination or racism as opposed to alleged cultural deficiencies.

Calling the research of nonwhites mesearch locates scholars of color as academic special interest groups that get in the way of the real, rigorous work performed by unnamed white academics. Mesearch, as epithet, simultaneously highlights people of color as incapable of objectivity while certifying the objectivity of the speaker.

My colleagues Phillip Ayoub and Deondra Rose have defended the utility and necessity of scholars of color studying their own groups. I thank them for this and regret that we work in an environment where such types of interventions remain necessary. (And if the comments on their article are any indication, we still need these interventions.) My concern is related to theirs yet distinct.

White scholars do mesearch all the time. In many disciplines, that is simply called the canon. Claiming that mesearch is a particular issue for scholars of color demonstrates a profound lack of self-awareness on the part of researchers in the social sciences and humanities. As scholars of whiteness such as Amanda Lewis have more than amply shown, whiteness maintains its power partially through its relative invisibility. White norms and culture are projected as universal standards, but it’s only whites’ socially dominant position that allows this work to be considered universal. Relations of dominance are built into what we think of as legitimate topics of study.

Take, for instance, psychology. Many people have criticized the discipline for drawing heavily from nonrepresentative college-age populations that are overwhelmingly European American. People of color tend to be such a small proportion of the sample that researchers have routinely dropped them from analyses. Yet, when such findings are presented, they are not usually discussed as the psychological dispositions of a dominant racial group — rather they are projected as general, universal psychological processes.

Or take the discipline of philosophy. As my undergrad philosophy professor Brian Van Norden and his colleague recently pointed out in The New York Times, in America, the discipline of philosophy has a deep Eurocentric bias. They argue that we should highlight this white bias by renaming the departments “European and American Philosophy” or “Anglo-European Philosophical Studies.” Such euphemisms sound slightly less abrasive than “White Philosophical Mesearch.” Of course, philosophers of color such as Charles Mills have been pointing out the bias in the discipline for years, showing that it impoverishes and distorts our basic understanding of the contemporary world.

These are important areas of study. I have taken courses in psychology and philosophy, and they have enriched my thinking and my life. The problem arises when people claim that they are a universal representation of the human condition. These areas of study are no more universal than African or ethnic studies programs. In fact, outsiders often criticize academe for studying topics that they may see as trivial, irrelevant or too specialized for “real world” application.

Some right-wing federal and state legislators regularly lampoon and deride research they don’t understand. We academics, as a group, usually rally to the defense of colleagues whose work is attacked as trivial. A core belief of liberal arts education is that insights can often arise from arcane knowledge or unpredictable connections between disciplines. Thus, scholars who claim that people of color are especially prone to conducting mesearch undermine a central principle of scholarship. That is, scholars have the autonomy and expertise to pursue questions they find interesting and relevant.

Ultimately, the relative invisibility of white normativity creates the illusion that white subject matter is universal and universally interesting. Ironically, scholars who locate the genesis of mesearch in the work of people of color would do well to adopt a technique forwarded by black feminists: reflexivity. As Patricia Hill Collins argues, all researchers, regardless of background, should be aware of and open about how their social position or personal biography might influence their assumptions.

Teaching While Black

kc-williamsNote: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column.  KC Williams taught sociology at a small Southern community college but is now the director of African-American student affairs at the University of Arizona. A proud #ChocolateCardinal, KC earned a B.A. and an M.A. from Stanford University. She has begun a new career in public speaking and writing on feminism and race. KC tweets @ProfKCW, blogs at Amplify Voices and manages several Facebook pages including Blackademia, Welcome to My Post-Racial Life, and Fight the Tower.

——

For any black faculty member who has ever felt imposed upon or discriminated against for reasons having nothing to do with your abilities, you may have been discovered to be TWB — Teaching While Black.

Even for black folk who think they share MFB (most favored black) status at their college, the rules of Teaching While Black still apply. Let one of your white students get their feelings hurt during a lecture on race — a lecture that you have been hired to deliver — then you will see how treacherous TWB can be and how quickly your most favored black status changes. Exhibits A through E: Melissa Harris-Perry, Shannon Gibney, Ersula Ore, Saida Grundy and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (just to name a few).

Somewhere along the way, we got it twisted. Many academic institutions were happy with your blackness only as long as it was propping up their sad diversity numbers. As long as you conform and stay in the shadows of their achievements, you are good to go, but if you are going to be one of “those blacks” — the troublemakers, activists, uppity black folk — now that’s another story.

When you lose that most favored black status, you will know. There will be an air of hostility from your colleagues in meetings. People you do not even know will begin to ignore you.

Secretaries will tattle on you, even if you have never done anything but support them. Some may go as far as to record their conversations with you, type them up and proclaim that they will testify in court to the comments made. Male maintenance workers will burst in the faculty restroom door, walk right in and ignore your presence, brushing by you with not so much as an “excuse me.” A vice president might call you “sassy” or “elitist” and demand that you take your prestigious alma mater out of your syllabus because it intimidates your (white) students. Yet they will also advise that you take people “out of their comfort zones.”

The college newsletter may publish your credentials incompletely, because to write them up properly — inclusive of the “with departmental honors” addendum — “might make others feel bad.” You will wonder if they actually realize how difficult it is to graduate with honors from a program like that. The very same tools required to get hired will suddenly become a barrier to full participation in that job.

Colleagues will take their disdain to the next level by sending problematic students your way or by actively dissuading them from taking your classes. Some of those students may disobey and take your course anyway. Later, they will come to you and report the negative, racist comments made while they were registering, and will put it in writing. The others? They let you know who they are on the first day of class as they sit with their arms crossed and faces torn up before you have even introduced yourself. Nearly all will soften as the semester goes on, because after all, you are not actually a monster, but you have been caught TWB.

Staff members who are paid to advocate for your role of leadership in the classroom will actively undermine your authority by empowering students to misbehave. They will encourage those students to skip the chain of command and write memos directly to the college president or vice presidents for any and all perceived rebuffs. Worst of all, when students misbehave in ways that most would consider beyond the pale, even criminally, those same staffers will stand around the water cooler discussing why you just can’t be nicer to students.

Some students will refuse to address you respectfully, but they will do so with a smile. They may even attempt to call you by your first name after you have introduced yourself to them professionally with the expected “Dr.” or “Professor” preceding your last name — on the first day of class, writing it on the board and in the syllabus.

When you’re Teaching While Black, your colleagues will also join in the fray. They will pull the office visit drive-by, wherein they will come by to ask you some basic question about some abstract theory, just to see if they can catch you off guard. And suddenly, all of them have a cousin or a neighbor who attended your alma mater; they want you to know that you are not that special. One may bring you an article explaining how they, as a Jewish person, benefit from inherent intelligence, while black people do not. They will wonder aloud to others why you kicked them out of your office. Little did they know a staffer was bragging about keeping down costs on a student fair by noting that they had “Jewed them down.”

You may see your college president around town, and despite the fact that there are rarely more than four or five black faculty (out of nearly 150), he will ask you where you work. Every time. He might do so in front of his administrators at a statewide conference, asking, “Where did we get you from?” as if you were acquired from a street corner, orphanage or auction block.

But you will fully realize you are TWB when the most atrocious things happen. When a student leaves a racist message on your office door display, or boldly tells you they do not believe you went to your university because they googled you and could not find you anywhere, or they bring a fully formed noose to the classroom to threaten you. Criminal.

Time and again, in even only the last three years, we have seen administrations handle these situations fecklessly. They have engaged in victim blaming and shaming, fired or written up the faculty member, failed to act in any meaningful way against perpetrators, and smeared the names and reputations of the victims. When you confront them head-on with the reality that you expect to be treated with respect and fairness, the Jim Crow claws come out. “How dare you not know your place, black person!” “Who do you think you are, elitist black person?” “You seem to think you deserve more than anyone else!”

This is the formula. It seems very few institutions take inclusion and equity seriously. Even those that do still handle racism and anti-blackness like it was something you were supposed to prevent — that it is an inconvenience that makes them look bad, and that is your fault.

So what can you do? Do you. Resist being lulled into the false comfort of respectability politics. Don’t think that you can “coon” your way into fair treatment — because if that is your plan, you have already lost. You know better and can sense that there is a problem if you ever find yourself thinking you have to be nicer, less bold, let it “roll off your shoulders” or hold back critique.

Don’t dull your shine for their comfort. Use the system to forward your professional goals and those of your students. Pay attention to students of color and inspire them by being fully black. Stand in your blackness because you stand on the shoulders of those who were not allowed to do so.

I came across this poem by Andria Nacina Cole, and I can’t stop thinking about how apropos it is.

They will come for your throat, Black girl. They will kill themselves trying to keep you in your place. Buck. Write pretty speeches in their language. Use their own words against them. Remember the community from which you come. And chip, chip, chip away at their systems. Forever. Until they come crashing down at their motherfucking feet.

There’s no alternative — you are black, while engaging in a noble profession within a hostile society that sees your blackness as a threat. So let it. As you work to dismantle the system, change how you respond to it. Be professional. Be committed. Be engaged.

But be you. Beautiful, powerful, wonderful black you.

On The Burden Of Having To Recruit “Your Own Kind”

Note: this was originally published on Inside Higher Ed columnLauren Michele Jackson is a Ph.D. student in English literature at the University of Chicago.

Program Recruitment From the Margins

“What is it like to be a student doing the work that you do in a place like this?”

lauren-m-jackson

Lauren Michele Jackson

Graduate students are hardly privy to ins and outs of application season, even from the other side of the curtain, but we feel the tremors nonetheless. Even before the acceptances roll out, faculty members and administrators depend on current students to recruit the prospective students they want most. As walking representatives of our programs’ successes and intellectual culture, it’s an implicit agreement upon matriculation that we fortify the reputation of our academic homes to the best of our ability, admissions efforts included.

Even if not for this arrangement, the fact that potential students would reach out to us and we divulge in turn just makes sense. Senior and midcareer faculty members toiled over their studies in an era so different as to be unintelligible. Meanwhile, junior faculty, although perhaps close in spirit, are removed by departmental philosophy — they most likely didn’t even go here.

“What is it like to be a student doing the work that you do in a place like this?”

So, now it is routine. Between summer and spring the question is expected. A little less vague, maybe, filled with consequential details like the college’s name and area specialty. Unwritten is anything that might, on its face, appeal to what many people around here would snidely call identity politics. I am never given the rhyming cute-ism assumed by Dear White People about faces and places. I am never asked what it is like to be a student who is — only one who does, and how that doing looks in the light of day to a campus like this. Prospective students never ask me what it’s like to be academic while black and a woman.

And yet I can feel another thing, the more pressing question that simmers underneath the labyrinthian negotiations and exchanges and codes of respectability that haunt the entire process of even getting to the point of daring to declare interest in something like formalized higher learning — while black. That question does not care that I am an Americanist, maybe does not even know that I work with black texts — “African-American literature” does not appear anywhere on my department profile. My photo is enough: I am merely and not so merely evidence that existence is possible. I am a touchstone.

The visible question “how do you do” is genuine, but so are the ones unspoken: How are you breathing?

Will I be able to breathe?

For its uncomfortable relationship with the public and the state, the academy is pretty content to mirror the enmities of the “real world” when it comes to people. It does not take an insider or an expert to see the diversity of ways academe is openly hostile to individuals it calls “diverse,” the humanities (god bless ’em) included. The instructors are white. The committees are white. The faculty is white. The history is white. The theory is white. The administration is white. The students are white — mostly. Some might say it is a little more complicated than that, but time for nuance is a fantastic luxury afforded if you are, well, white. If undergraduate education belongs to the order Lagomorpha, and M.F.A.s practice eugenics, a literature Ph.D. is like skipping dinner for a party that only serves hors d’oeuvres.

The sympathetic portrait for the overworked, undercompensated grad-student-cum-employee-but-kinda-still-not is a sallow thing: the owl-eyed pixie sustained by JSTOR and carrot sticks or the reedy, inert genius whose underappreciation manifests in depressive episodes soothed by Hemingway plus a Hemingway-approved beverage. Whiteness is the hypervisible champion of grad school apathy, the image implied when the subject is someone whose chosen career includes thinking for money. And as academe revels in its own romanticism, real students are drowning.

From where I sit: grad life is OK. Incredible people doing incredible things who are enthusiastic about blackness — or at very least, enthusiastic about my enthusiasm — surround me in personal and professional networks curated in real time over the course of my time here. There are colleagues who make me feel loved and necessary in an atmosphere that drives even the most privileged into isolation. Even greater is the virtual nucleus of smart-as-hell folks whose tweets and messages sustain me. I am all right. I am breathing. But it wouldn’t hurt to have some more black folks in this bitch, just sayin’.

“What is it like to be a student doing the work that you do in a place like this?”

That question rubs. As I walk on campus and see blocks brimming with private police, guns holstered, that question rubs. When fraternities and sororities — coalitions for white supremacy — do what they do best, the friction is almost too much to bear. When they are shielded further by administrative dialect, I am white-hot.

The academy is a pyramid scheme, as the old joke goes. Aging scholars coax bright young minds to work tirelessly for jobs they never intended on abdicating anyway. Pro-diversity campaigns in higher education look pyramid scheme-y in their own way: the already marginalized, further minorized in their respective departments, are responsible for recruiting “their own.” We are the one rainbow welcome wagon for the place that already demonstrates a lack of welcome for having to initiate such a campaign at all. More insidious, the directive is seductive and, shucking notwithstanding, feels mutually beneficial. They — the administration and affiliates — get brownie points, we get allies.

What is our responsibility to undermine our responsibility?

If we choose selfishness, the desire to see (more) “black faces in white spaces” outweighs concern for what happens when they get there. Selfishness hoses down the nitty-gritty and makes way for glowing reports on the institutions that would rather we did not exist. If we choose selfish, we do not have to look for allies in the abstract. But who am I to recruit the student with a bull’s-eye on their back from day one.

I continue to believe that nobody looks out for us like we look out for us. If not inborn, endangerment since birth draws black folks — black femmes especially — tighter together. Whiteness pushes out, but we (can) extend a hand, give a heads-up, keep folks in the know. For example, I think about the cumulonimbus-headed brotha who pulled me aside during a campus visit to a choice university years ago. He warned me of the friction between the two departments I would have dearly needed to work in tandem to complete my studies.

No (wo)man, person of color should be an island, nor can we lure our family under false pretenses. The negotiation is not easy. We cannot hide the dirt, we cannot unwrite the damages, but we can still extend the invitation. Honestly. There is work to do here, a lot of it. I will be here for you, but I cannot do it alone.