“I think she’s the hardest professor in the department,” a classmate of mine said. “I mean, maybe she just doesn’t like me. Maybe she doesn’t like white people or something.”
We were reflecting on our professors while waiting for a class to start. The classmate I was talking to was equating a professor’s challenging and rigorous coursework to discrimination, because to her, a black professor that pushes students intellectually was not acceptable.
I was much younger back then when this conversation occurred. I remember feeling the need to reassure the girl that the professor in question was not racist. We talked about it a few seconds more and then our class started. But don’t think for a second that I forgot about this encounter.
In my experience in education thus far, black and brown professors are far and few in-between, in white-dominated American academia. I cherish the few times I’ve been able to take a class led by someone who looks like me. I look up to these black professors. I commend them. For me, they help legitimate my place in academia. When I watch them teach, I get a warm and tingly feeling sometimes. In short, their very presence reiterates a sense of black pride.
But my pride takes a hit in the jugular when the ability of the black professor is questioned…simply because he or she indeed has ability. The wound stings even more when white professors known to be difficult are accepted by fellow students while black professors in the same boat are chastised and even reported – simply for doing their job. And my blood begins to boil when, in the midst of all this, the “easy” black professors are put on a pedestal by students. These professors easily become the “favorites.”
After having conversations with students and black professors at multiple institutions, many black professors are at a fork in the road – I either have to dumb down my work and myself to seem less intimidating to students or I can continue to push my students toward bigger and better, taking the risk of being perceived as black and educated by the students I teach. In this instance, who is the racist here?
But it gets even murkier when tenure, accountability and university standards are thrown into the mix, as many black professors feel forced to be as demanding as possible and to dish out the hardest readings, assignments and projects one could fathom, as many black professors are pressured to “prove” themselves to their colleagues, working ten, twenty times harder, simply to be given the time of day.
To the Black Proffesors:
I will admit, in the beginning, I was wrong. I was wrong to admire you, simply because you look like me. Yes, image certainly speaks volumes in this image-saturated world we live in, but image is barely the tip of the ice burg. I am now in awe of you all, because of your plight. You are pushed and pulled in every direction. You are burdened with research, micro aggressions, students who love your failure and hate your fruition, colleagues who doubt you simply because of how you look, students (like me) who hold you to high standards in your work and in your blackness, students who are afraid of you because you know more than they do, faculty anxiously waiting for the day you slip up to call your bluff, and students who look like you waiting in the same line, because unfortunately, they do not yet know that they look like you and then some.
A few weeks ago, I accepted an offer to pursue my Ph.D. in education. To say the least, I will need your guidance and your love, but I also realize you need my support as much as I need yours.
This is why my fist is in the air for the black professors; this is why yours should be too.