Teaching while Black

Paradigm Shifts about Black Educators

James Baldwin once said: “Not everything that it is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It is time for us to face the truth that young racists exists, and they are in college classrooms.

I addressed this issue in a previous post where I shared my experience leading a lecture on African American poetry, when the ZOOM session was abruptly hacked by what seemed to be a group of teenagers who spewed racial slurs. (I want to reiterate, and even clarify, that this experience did not occur at the college where I teach, but at a different organization.) I linked the experience to teaching in higher education because of the racism and prejudice I have experienced not only from ‘older’ people, but from students. 

To help us face the truth of young racists in the classroom, I think we have at least 5 mindsets that we need to normalize. I will primarily reference Black/African Americans because I am Black. But, these concepts are applicable to all people groups within BIPOC. 

1. Normalize Black educators

Too often, students arrive to college without ever having a Black teacher.  Consider how many teachers the average student has from Kindergarten to 12th grade. We, as a society and an educational system, have to deem it unacceptable for students to go this long without exposure to a Black teacher. 

At many colleges across the country, most students will have even fewer opportunities to be taught by a Black professor, particularly outside of courses related to race. This means a student could graduate from college and never have one Black professor. How has that student been given a “higher education” void of an experience with a Black educator? 

2. Normalize Black educators as authority figures

Many students have never experienced a Black person as an authority figure. Certainly. not one who determines their grade and gives them feedback on assignments. Many do not adjust well. They struggle with a Black educator pointing out their weaknesses. Some assume that because the professor is Black the class will be easy, and the grading will be light. Many do not believe they should have to exert effort in such classrooms. 

Because many White students do not view Black educators as authority figures, they do not believe they have to talk with the professor when they have concerns about the class. Instead, they often opt to go above the professor’s head by speaking with a dean, a provost, or a vice president. This has happened to me numerous time. At multiple institutions, my students have complained all the way up to the president.

Rarely. do such students talk with the professor directly. And many times, administrators do not send the student back to the Black professor – the authority figure – and require the student first try to resolve the matter with the professor. This covert racism is often supported (intentionally or unintentionally) by administrators. 

The Black professor’s authority and perspective are disregarded. 

3. View Black educators as professionals

Throughout history, racist ideologies have dehumanized and infantilized Black people. We were forced to address White people as “master, sir, ma’m,” while we were called everything but our names. Many times, we were called “girl” and “boy” despite our age. 

And this same behavior is replicated in higher education. 

I can’t tell you how many times I have been called ‘girl’ while at work. Unfortunately, it wasn’t by my students but fellow colleagues. Without permission, some colleagues shorten my name and call me “Chas.” I have been told that the height of my heels was essentially an indicator that I didn’t have tenure. I have been gawked at for dressing professionally. 

Many of my peers have not viewed me as professional, but a little Black girl. 

On the other hand with students, I require them to address me as Professor Gunn. It takes all of my students a few weeks to adjust and learn my name. Typically, my non-White students will address me as Miss Gunn, which shows some level of respect. However, many White students will call me by my first name, and I have to correct them. 

Of course, this happens to teachers of all racial groups. Some of BIPOC students exhibit similar behavior. However, it’s not always a harmless act. Sometimes, it is a form of covert racism. It’s a way of saying I do not see you as an authority figure or someone I have to respect and certainly not a professional who has earned degrees and qualifications for standing in from the classroom. 

Students who are prejudiced or racists are often well versed in power dynamics. Privilege teaches them this. They use student evaluations as weapons to try to discredit the competency and character of Black professors. What’s even more tragic is the lack of awareness of such tactics by administrators and tenure committees.  

4. Normalize Black educators as assets 

To often when it comes to discussions and decisions about race equity, the motivation is to prevent lawsuits, to appear political correctly and to portray a positive image. None of these should be motivations for doing the right thing. 

A part of being educated should include being taught by educators of diverse racial groups, experiences, perspectives etc. Such diversity will foster critical thinking and intellectualism in our students. 

I remember reading a book in graduate school that I didn’t particularly care for, and my professor challenged me to see what I could learn from the text, despite it not being my aesthetic. That gave me a new mindset and a new window into the text. I didn’t have to like the book to learn from it. That was the purpose of the class: learning. 

Everyone benefits from having Black educators. I will say it again, everyone benefits from having Black educators. Departments are missing a vital asset if they do not have multiple Black professors. 

5. Normalize Black excellence 

Many associate ‘Black’ with inferior, ghetto, less than, etc. An anti-Black sentiment exists in our world and among all people groups. These mindsets hinder many from seeing Black excellence in its many forms and variations. 

Perhaps, that class in which students rated the Black professor low was an example of Black excellence. One in which an educator required a level of rigor in her course. Black excellence may be a pair of heels in a department meeting filled with sneakers and flats. Black excellence may be staying late to work one-on-one with students. It may be applying for grants. 

In whatever way it manifests, it should be applauded, encouraged, supported and funded. Too often, Black professors are told to ‘tone it down,’ that we are ‘doing too much,’ that we should not be ‘so tough’ on students or that we need to ‘change our approach.’ Like any educator, Black professors should be given critical feedback, and we should grow in response to such feedback. 

However, feedback should not be rooted in anti-Black paradigm or one that requires Black educators to bring less of themselves, their philosophies and their passion into the classroom stifles and suppress us. 

These five paradigms will not completely eradicate covert racism in the classroom or in the hallways, but I do think these are appropriate places to start. We have to face the challenges that many Black professors face, if we are going to make colleges and universities a better place for everyone. 

Our students need us to get this right, even the racist ones.