The counselor at an inner-city middle school tells an 8th grade girl that she will become an unwed teenage mother and dropout.
A high school teacher only encourages the girl to apply for scholarships to 2-year colleges, because 4-year schools were just too hard to get into.
The girl, now a woman, works her way to a mid-sized private university. She takes a Russian Political History class for fun. One day, in the middle of a lecture about Russian/Chechen relations, the professor attempts to clarify the relationship between the waring nations by asserting, “Well, basically the Chechens are Russia’s “N-word”.” Later when the woman brings the concern to the Dean, the Dean asks the woman, “Well, what do you want me to do about it?”
At the same university, the woman becomes a decorated member of the national championship speech team. She expresses interest in two events known for their academic rigor. Her coaches literally laugh out loud in her face. One of them says incredulously, “You? Yeah, right.”
The woman is accepted into a graduate program, ranked in the top five of the country. She thrives through the rigorous challenges she is required to meet. Every week she drops into her program head’s office to excitedly discuss what she is learning. He will later tell her that he’s always been afraid of her because of the story she wrote in her admissions essay almost two years prior.
The woman becomes an adjunct professor. At one institution, she becomes skilled at quickly identifying which male student is going to be a thorn in her side. Two other students plot to get grades changed by launching a credibility attack against her; administration quickly takes their side, despite evidence contrary to the accusations. Another student physically threatens her. While another disrupts a class to proclaim, “I guess they let anyone teach from Compton.”
On a separate campus, the woman is subjected to a colleague who likes to assert power in the presence of others. Her own authority, intellect, and competency are constantly challenged in the presence of students as well as colleagues from other institutions. This particular colleague also needed the woman to affirm her fragility as she literally cried about “being judged for the color of her skin.”
The woman is now a tenured professor at a predominately Black and Hispanic institution. She hears well-meaning colleagues refer to students as “lazy,” “not smart,” “crazy,” “acting like crackheads,” “loud,” “disrespectful,” “these poor people,” and “some of them will never get beyond [our campus].”
My journey through academia reflects the ways in which non-Black people impede progress through deceptive acts of violence. While not physical, each instance carries the extraordinary weight of oppressive actions which cause mental and emotional harm. I call these acts deceptive because on the surface they may seem harmless: an act of tough love, encouragement, academic freedom, jesting, protecting students, or leadership; yet, behind each instance, a more sinister force propels these actions forward: racialized biases.
It has never been lost on me that some of the worst offenders have been well-meaning white liberals, who pride themselves in “reaching back” to work with poor and underserved communities. At times, some people were working with and advocating for programs which explicitly targeted students of color. I have always been acutely aware of available resources put into place and, without contradiction, painfully aware of the barriers blocking access to them.
As people have taken to the streets in protest of the brutalization and outright murder of Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC), as organizers put forth strategies to dismantle the oppressive systems of racism, as institutions are responding with promises to produce changes worthy of the wrongs enacted upon BIPOC lives, I am struck by the disconnect between the political and personal. To change or create new rules of an organization is political. To throw money at a problem is political. What more can we do to address the ways in which our worlds collide interpersonally?
Philosopher (yes, that is what he was) James Baldwin once mused that it is easier for people to cry than it is for them to change. Yet, what if we were brave enough to challenge that notion? What I propose is that in addition to the political: increasing funding, providing equitable programming, diversifying spaces of leadership, etc., that there are also personal commitments and action plans put forth which require people to do the internal work. For example, the implementation of consistent accountability driven trainings designed to eliminate issues of privilege and racial bias, the creation of environments which celebrate diversity beyond seasonal holidays or the existence of the LGBTQIA+ communities, and the utilization of “safe spaces,” where it is more efficient to call out stereotypes and other interpersonal grievances in the workplace. We must institutionalize personal accountability plans which promote growth and not just the practice of obeying the rules. For me, this is where the linchpin lies. This is what ties all our efforts together to make them work.
What does it matter if the resources are put into place but the people in charge of distributing them harbor ugliness in their minds and spirits? The same white man who confessed to being afraid of me, a Black woman from a poor neighborhood, is the same man who made sure I received a scholarship from the graduate school’s diversity assistance program. In essence, every single instance highlighted at the beginning of this article occurred as a consequence of racialized biases.
If we are going to seriously move the needle on increasing diversity, inclusion, and other equitable opportunities in academia (and of course, the world), we must be able to call the people who work in these institutions to task. There is so much work being conducted which can help people identify and better understand their biases, in order to change them. For instance, the work of Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, a social psychologist and professor at Stanford University, whose research on the consequences of racial bias helped to decrease racial profiling in the online neighborhood communication hub Nextdoor by 75%, simply by forcing people to focus on behaviors and not just biases. Now is the time to tap into all available resources and attack the issues from all fronts.
A dear friend of mine always calls me a “bleeding heart liberal” because I choose to always want to find the best in people. In truth, I struggle at times with that level of optimism, because I am always too aware of the ugliness which thrives deep in the bones of America. That ugliness is responsible for the brutal enslavement of millions of Black people across the African diaspora, the continued deaths of Black transwomen, the horrifically high maternal mortality rates of BIPOC women, and the deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police.
My Black soul is tired. Moreover, I will speak for the Black collective and say WE are all tired. This is why we have once again taken to the streets. We are tired of being murdered, being discriminated against, being profiled, being given less, being expected to do more and be more, and tired of knowing that the world loves everything about us, except us. This weight is too much to bear.
If Black folks can figuratively and literally put our bodies on the line to fight for an existence which isn’t encumbered by racism, then the least non-black people can do is fix the ways in which they so unjustly perceive and treat us. Otherwise, this is all for naught.