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People often say that life has a way of coming full circle. While we are not always aware of the exact moment this happens, one thing is for certain: we are changed by the journey.
For me, that moment of self-awakening and enlightenment happened as I stood alone in a short, dark hallway located in the science building at the college I serve in the capacity of professor and administrator. There was no smoke. There were no mirrors. There was no magical harp playing from the heavens. It was as if life had been suspended, leaving just me, my thoughts, and the emerging realization that I had not only unearthed my purpose but also my pain.
How can I, a single black molecule in a constellation of whiteness, ever be able to make a difference? I live in the chorus of misunderstanding that is the white liberal arts college I call home. When I was growing up, my dad would always say, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Even at a young age I was made aware of how we as people measure our identity and ourselves based on those around us. I was always aware of who I was as a person, but I was never more aware of my blackness than when I started my position at the college. The comments and lack of belonging were pinned up inside me, and the pressure from it all was beginning to weigh me down.
I have been blessed with amazing opportunities that I did not take for granted, mostly because they all came with hurdles. And that race, complete with the hurdles, brought me here—where, as the youngest and sole black director in the graduate studies department at a predominantly white, private, liberal arts college, I carry the weight of my ancestors on my shoulders. This burden was not adopted by choice but by necessity: When I walk into the president’s conference room for a meeting, I take a look over my right shoulder and then my left. Sometimes, I even wait for several minutes to pass. New day, same story. I am the only person of color. In a meeting comprised of senior leaders in education, I am the only black face.
For years, I have carried this weight of otherness like a bag of coal. Before entering my office each morning, I swallow my sense of wanting to belong, because my environment and the individuals who inhabit my surroundings make me aware of my blackness and otherness on a daily basis. I had become accustomed to the microaggressions of segregation and the dog-whistle commentary that litter my workdays. I had worked to push past the pain and hurt, because I was comforted by knowing that, I had the ability to go back to my real home, my real world. At home, I remove the mask that I am often required to wear—a mask that not only exudes an outwardly happy demeanor but also shields me from expressing my true feelings in a world where my blackness and otherness is not welcomed. I often sit at home and think about my students. How do they navigate this environment day in and day out?
The unending pressures that go with being black on the campus of a predominantly white institution can be unbearable. As a faculty member, it is hard to fathom what some of my students experience. But a reality that both faculty and students of color face at predominantly white institutions is the constant tension between integrating into the dominant culture and honoring our own culture and sense of black pride. Sadly, even at home and in the confines of my own four walls, I am not at peace. To borrow an oft-quoted phrase from James Baldwin, “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.”
The daily microaggressions had reached an all-time high. How many times would a white professor assume that I work in the facilities department and ask me to fulfill a housekeeping service ticket? How many times would someone read the sign outside my office door that states Director and then proceed to walk into my office and ask to schedule an appointment with the director as if I were the receptionist? I was in a state of rage—the rage was immeasurable. What could I do? How could I make this stop?
As I stood in the hallway, I could no longer breathe.
Eric Garner was the subject of the hashtag and rallying cry “I can’t breathe” powering through social media in mid-2014. The callous mishandling and untimely death of Mr. Garner through excessive police force left our nation in shock. Even more shocking was the news that came on December 3rd of that year: The grand jury decided not to file charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer accused of Garner’s death.
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The ripple effect of the resulting outrage could be felt on my college campus. A large population of students stood in solidarity with Garner, holding a campus protest and chanting the now iconic “I can’t breathe.” There were also “die-ins,” where students dressed in black would lie face-up to represent the deceased. These images on our campus highlighted and encapsulated the growing Black Lives Matter movement. Even more riveting was a forty-five-minute video created by our students in the fall of 2014 spurred by continuing violent acts by police toward African Americans.
In the video, students of color speak candidly about their experiences on campus, discussing the various ways in which they are made to feel “less than” vis-à-vis their white counterparts, the various ways in which they are met with racism on campus, the various ways in which they are made to feel subhuman, and the various ways in which they, too, feel as though their lives do not matter. As an administrator, I sat in silence, deeply saddened. The students’ descriptions of racism perpetrated against them during interactions with faculty and staff read as if they had been taken directly from the pages of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. But this was not 1930s Alabama; it was 2015 “post-racial” America.
Days had passed, yet the video continued to take up residence in my mind. No matter how hard I tried, I could not shake the images and words out of my thoughts. Our students were hurting; the video they had created was a cry for help. How could we as administrators have ignored the signs? Our students of color needed us, our students of color wanted an inclusive campus community, and our students of color felt alone. As I walked from my office to the hall in the science building, with these reactionary phrases in my head, it hit me: This video was taking up residence in my mind not like some foreign antigen that needed to be removed from my brain but because it was a real-life depiction of how I, a college administrator and professor, also felt.
My purpose and my pain.
At that moment, I realized that while working on this campus, I, too, had been made to feel less than human. I had experienced racism—and, even worse, I, too, felt alone. As this moment swept through me, I became still—like life had been suspended. This was the moment I had always feared: the moment when all my emotion around being the only black face in my department came full circle. This was the moment when the death of Eric Garner, the protests that ensued, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the candid student video all led to a self-awakening. The lack of diversity and inclusiveness at my college was the source of my internal pain. The constant disrespect, marginalization, and isolation from colleagues and the expectation of inferiority from colleagues and students were all part of my daily experience as a black woman in a predominantly white institution. Now that I had been awakened, the lack of diversity and inclusiveness would henceforth be a charge I would actively carry, rather than a burden passively borne on my back.
The truth is, in the twenty-first century, black students will continue to enroll in predominantly white institutions (PWIs) at greater rates than those enrolling at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).1 A staggering 85 percent of black students attend PWIs. With this upward trend, PWIs can no longer employ a Eurocentric framework of operation when it comes to their college practices. All institutions of higher learning should be equipped to cater to students who do not identify with the tenets of the dominant paradigms. Black students at PWIs are in a constant internal battle between their blackness and the schools’ whiteness, making those environments feel hostile and unwelcoming. Faculty and frontline staff aid in perpetuating and constructing an unsupportive and unwelcoming environment through their elitist behavior and lack of cultural competency.2 The black student experience in the classroom at a PWI mimics racist behavior that is seen and replicated by white students and other faculty members outside the classroom.
The faculty-to-student relationship speaks directly to the lack of faculty diversity at PWIs. Nationally, black professors represent 6 percent of collegiate faculty.3 The percentages of black professors at PWIs are even lower. Like students, black professors are confronted with numerous challenges and problems at PWIs. Research has shown that black professors at PWIs face “isolation from colleagues,” “expectations of intellectual inferiority by white students” and “white faculty members,” “marginalization of their research by white colleagues,” “lower pay,” and “biased critiques of their classroom effectiveness by white students,” among other abuses.4
Despite those challenges, the benefit of having black professors cannot be underestimated. Black professors bring cultural competency around areas of racism, equity, and inclusion to the educational process, and they are better mentors to black students and more likely to push them academically.5 The correlation between black professors and black students’ academic success is manifested in the fact that black students perform better at HBCUs than PWIs. Contrary to the argument laid forth by Justice Antonin Scalia in Fisher v. University of Texas, in which he states, that “it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school…a slower-track school where they do well,”6 HBCUs are not “slower-track” institutions. To give just one example of HBCUs’ standing, the National Law Journal ranked Howard University School of Law among the top twenty-five in the United States.7 The fact is, academic performance and achievement by black students are directly linked to the support they receive while at school, and this should come as no surprise: human development theory suggests that people do better in environments where they are valued, accepted, and have social networks.
As PWIs fail to provide black students and faculty with such an environment, intentional strategies of inclusiveness are required. These strategies should include implementing mandated cultural competence training for both faculty and students; hiring more faculty members, staff, and administrators of color; putting in place a culturally based curriculum; providing targeted support services for students; administering an annual campus-wide survey on race and inclusion; creating retention and achievement plans for students of color; and allocating finances to hire and support a campus-wide Chief Diversity Officer and supporting staff who are progressive in the area of diversity. In addition, PWIs must change their current campus climate by holding offenders of acts of racism and ethnic insensitivity accountable for their actions.
The goal of every institution should be to help shape a body of students who learn not for school but for life. In order to do this, institutions must meet students where they are and serve as a conduit to help them get to where they need to be, irrespective of where the student comes from. As Thomas Parham, vice chancellor of student affairs at the University of California, Irvine, states in his latest article on diversity and inclusion, “true integration…demands not only that an institution be more diverse by virtue of race, ethnicity, gender, age, physical ability, religious affiliation and sexual orientation…but also that each person and culture that composes the institution’s demographic makeup should be able to see themselves prominently reflected in the fabric of the institution in meaningful ways.”8
Our nation is not monolithic. If an institution strives to serve all people, then it must represent all people. And no, that does not mean having a mere smattering of color here and there. That is not diversity. Diversity means having more than one token person of color. For while an organization with one person of color in a position of power may well ignite and inspire another person of color to walk through the same door, for an organization or institution to be truly diverse, it not only must have people of all ethnicities but also should be able to attract people from diverse backgrounds because of the intrinsically diverse constellation characterizing its environment.
When it comes to diversity and inclusiveness, we all have a critical part to play, which no one else is capable of taking on for us. We cannot afford to wait for the next Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Ferguson, or Baltimore Uprising to happen before we acknowledge and act upon the deep pain and damage brought by the absence of diversity. It must become part of our daily purpose. It must become part of our individual awakening.
- Mercedes A. Benton, “Challenges African American Students Face at Predominantly White Colleges,” Journal of Student Affairs 10 (2001): 21–28.
- Peter Kobrak, “Black Student Retention in Predominantly White Regional Universities: The Politics of Faculty Involvement,” Journal of Negro Education 61, no. 4 (1992): 509–
- National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), “Characteristics of Postsecondary Faculty” (last updated May 2015).
- Ray Von Robertson, “When White Is Not Always Right: The Experience of Black Students at Predominately White Institutions,” Black Agenda Report (blog), December 13, 2011 (11:35 p.m.).
- Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin et al., 570 U.S. (2013).
- Howard University, “School of Law Ranked Among Top 50 Law Schools,” updated March 26, 2015.
- Thomas A. Parham, “Desegregation Not Same as Diversity and Inclusion,” Diverse—Issues in Higher Education (December 17, 2015).