An Open Letter about Representation in Academia from a Black Professor
Because there’s still more room at my table
I want you to know why I am here. I want you to know why I choose to be in a profession where I am most certainly a minority, where across the board, people who look like me are far and few in-between. Did you know that only about 3% of full-time faculty are Black women (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016)?
I am not here by mistake. This is not random. This is just as intentional as it is strategic.
“I teach because I need you to see a visual representation of what you can be…and what you can be better than.” — Yinde Newby, author and educator
Allow me to break this down a little bit.
“…what you can be…and what you can be better than.”
Please don’t for a second think I’m only here teaching you so you can see that you can be like me. Why would I place such limits on you and your beautiful mind? Why would I shame our ancestors, bound by the burdens of slavery and institutional racism, by curbing the leaps and bounds they’ve made for you…the hopes and dreams you were made for? I want you to see you in me and I want you to do bigger and better. I want you to surpass, to transcend, to outshine anything I’ve ever done or ever could do. Don’t see me as the goal or the limit, but rather, see me as the standard. The stepping stone. I want to give you a leg up, but only if you let me.
You may not be familiar with the leaps and bounds I’ve had to make to get this seat at the table, but trust me, I didn’t sit here intending to be the only one. I sat here because I was passed the torch and I plan to pass the torch off to whoever is up to taking the seat.
“…I teach because I need you”
The journey has been far from easy, and it’s far from over. You think you need me, but truth is, I need you. I need you to let me know it was all worth it, that I’m supposed to be here. I need you to justify what I’ve been through.
the dream killers
the “you’re not supposed to be here” stares and micro aggressions
the long nights, the sacrifice
giving college the last 10 plus years of my life
the failures, the questioning of what I’m doing and
who I am
And making God laugh with my own so-called “plans”
tests on material I don’t even remember to get to places I’ll never forget
climbing mountains to help people climb I don’t even know yet
Let me know.
This one is for the scholars, the ancestors and their successors.
I felt heavy most days I went to work. Being Black in corporate America requires one to wear a cloak of confidence and protection just to make it through the day, even the simplest of tasks. The idea of double consciousness has always weighed pretty heavily on me, especially because I’ve routinely been immersed in hegemonic White spaces where the smile I wore did not always reflect what I was thinking or feeling on the inside. I learned at an early age that many people within these spaces, both Black and White, were not always willing to talk about the messiness of race, class and gender, and would rather avoid the uneasiness those topics aroused altogether. I also learned that getting my daily dose of pro-Black conversation would have to come from Black co-workers at Happy Hours or group chats with close friends and not from the workplace.
The fact is, I’m Black, and I state that proudly. But, at any given point in my life, I could walk down the street, be perceived as a threat, wear the wrong clothes, make a sudden movement and my life could be in jeopardy. My White co-workers didn’t see that. To them, I was the articulate Black girl, the one who did well for herself despite being raised by a single mother. To them, I failed to represent the stereotypes of Blackness in this country. I was safe to them, but unfortunately, the privilege their white skin afforded them would always be a threat to me and those who looked like me.
I’ve always had a good understanding of the game I had to play to be successful, but as any Black person knows, it’s beyond tiring, and on days where I wake up to yet another Black body being gunned down by law enforcement, I feel heavy. Extremely heavy. And as much as I hate to admit it, hopeless. Not because I don’t think things will change or because I take the work of my ancestral freedom fighters for granted, but because I am preparing to walk into a place where my co-workers will talk about arbitrary news events to spark conversation or a local bar they visited, and make no mention of what’s happening to Black people in this country, people who look exactly like me. I realize it’s probably naïve of me to expect them to say anything and I don’t really know why I’m surprised, but it’s still an awful feeling to be silenced and to go unseen, to be expected to deal with conditions most people would find unbearable. But, I bite my tongue, because that’s what we are taught to do.
Instead, I want to call out and say the reason for my absence is simple: tired from being Black. I’d say, “I’ll see you all when America starts to acknowledge and value my humanity”. Truth is, I’d probably never go back if I had to wait on that.
I struggle with juggling the two worlds, even after 24 years of doing it. I imagine that most Black people do. Be it in corporate America or predominantly White universities, the feeling of otherness pulls us down like an anchor. Luckily, I have friends and family outside of work who get it and who are willing to be my soundboard whenever I need it, but I imagine there are people who have no such thing, who have no way of filling their cups back up after long days of feigned smiles and exaggerated laughter with co-workers who are oblivious to what their White privilege affords them.
I don’t pretend to have the solution to how spaces marred by White hegemony can work to acknowledge the experiences of being “the other.”
I simply know that I’m am tired of feeling drained from the battle that comes from being Black in this country and being forced to endure, to get over it and to let it go.
For those of us who have felt trapped in a world where we are unseen and unheard and sometimes even pretend to be someone we are not because we can’t talk about the ties we have to people like Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice, I encourage us to seek out where we can find these communities. The reality is, our workplaces are unlikely to change in the ways we need them to, or if they do, they will adopt the superficial front of diversity and inclusion that most places do these days. Even though they will promote being open, there will never truly be a space to express the realities of the “other” experience.
Breaking the vicious cycle of otherness and lessening the load hegemony brings is a riddle I’ve not yet solved, but I will continue to seek outlets to make this Black life I’m living a bit easier, and I encourage others to do the same.
Mariah Williams is a graduate student at VCU pursing a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning. She enjoys reading, writing and is passionate about social justice issues within the Black community. She loves her Black and her magic and wants to become an urban planner who works with women of color to develop cultural and inclusive spaces within neighborhoods and cities.
According to Teach.com, special education provides tailor-made educational programming to meet the specialized needs of each and every child (i.e. children with autism, developmental delay, physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities and other hindrances). Essentially, children who may have challenges in the classroom are supposed to receive individualized attention and curriculum, based on what each child brings to the table.
What special education often looks like
A little boy doesn’t learn in the same ways or at the same pace as his fellow classmates. The teacher gets frustrated and sends him to special ed. His very presence in the special ed class labels him for the rest of his school career. The special ed label tells teachers and classmates that he has no potential. A vicious cycle ensues. Because he probably won’t get the specialized attention promised by the special ed department, he gets lost in the sauce – as the teachers give up on him, he slowly gives up on himself. In effect, a bleak future including but not limited to the school to prison pipeline may ensue.
PS- If this little boy is black, there is even more of a chance of this scenario coming to life.
When it comes to gifted programs, black boys at all levels of the achievement continuum are 2.5 times less likely to be enrolled (even high achieving black boys who qualify for such programs).
In Virginia, while black students make up about 24% of the entire state’s student population, they make up over 31% of special education students.
(NEA; IDEA Data Center)
An author’s experience with Special Education
Ronnie Sidney II — author, educator and supervisee in Social Work — knows the special ed debacle all too well; after all, he was just like the little black boy I introduced you to earlier. “It all started in 3rd grade. I remember a teacher that I had taking me out of class and asking me to do a math problem for another teacher. The whole situation felt weird. Then I remember being taken from my class daily by a teacher who met with a small group of students in a different classroom,” he says. In third grade, Sidney began being tracked in special education. Although his experience in special education started in third grade, the stigmatization and ill-effects of his new educational placement became even harder to handle in middle school.
“I remember taking a series of tests asking me to do a variety of things. In sixth and seventh grade I recognized that something about me was different than the other kids. I felt embarrassed and didn’t want my friends to know. I began resenting my parents for putting me in special education. I didn’t feel like I needed it, I thought that I was smarter than that. I was unable to take classes with my friends and it made me feel helpless. I was in class with kids who didn’t care about anything except making each other laugh and messing with girls. I wanted more. I wanted to leave this small town and stigmatization behind and go to college.”
Although special education has been traditionally thought to bridge the gap between education and students’ individual education obstacles, it actually brought about more hindrances in Sidney’s case – he wasn’t allowed to take college prep or foreign language courses because of his special ed status. It all came to a screeching halt the day an 8th grade Sidney came home from school crying, overwhelmed once the school decided it would be best if he were in ALL special ed classes. “I felt like they were putting me on a path that I didn’t want to be on.” Shortly after, Sidney’s parents withdrew him from special education. He kept his dealings in special education to himself, afraid of being teased. “We were all vulnerable and it was those vulnerabilities that you had to hide or protect because the weak were eaten alive.” Not until he started college did he reveal that he was put in special education as a young boy.
Sidney and Nelson Beat the Odds
Throughout college and graduate school, Sidney read and researched about the over-representation of black boys in special education. Not only was he educated and enlightened by his findings, he was also relieved to discover that his story was no isolated incident – it was indeed part of a phenomenon occurring across the nation. “I read Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys by Jawanza Kunjufu and I was like whoa! It answered so many questions that I had growing up. The book was refreshing and encouraged me to go back to my old school and retrieve my special education records. In college I wrote a paper entitled Special Ed : The Disproportionate Placement of Minorities in Special Education and was able to research the topic further.”
Sidney has since written Nelson Beats the Odds, a graphic novel surrounding a little boy’s experience with being placed in special education. In the book, Nelson has been acting out in school and a frustrated teacher puts him in special ed. Despite the little he expects of his special education placement, he gets more bang for his buck once his special education teachers and his parents work with him to tackle his challenges in the classroom head on, believing in his ability and his potential.
Nelson Beats the Odds is quite similar to how Sidney himself beat the odds, as the book is based on his own story. His support system, including a few teachers that truly believed in him and his parents, is what he credits his success to. Sidney attained a 1.8 GPA in high school and went on to acquire not only a bachelor’s degree, but also a master’s degree in social work. He has since written this book, started a therapeutic consulting company and has become a speaker on many issues, from black fatherhood to special education.
How we can all beat the odds
Sidney sees biased standardized testing as a major culprit in the over-representation of black boys in special education. “I think a majority of them are misdiagnosed. I don’t believe the tests accurately assess black children’s intelligence as much as they do white or European children’s intelligence. There is plenty of research and controversy surrounding the racial bias associated with the bell curve and SAT tests. I feel like if those test were truly accurate I would have been in gifted and talented instead of special ed.” Sidney also attributes the mass placement of black boys into special education to teacher bias. “My behavior as an elementary school student was off the chain. I was really hyper and would talk a lot in class. I believe if I sat in class quiet and wasn’t a behavior problem then I probably wouldn’t have been identified.”
Sidney believes that black boys need to be pushed to excellence – but in order to do so, schools need to take the time to find best practices. Sidney refers to Chicago’s Urban Prep School and New York’s Harlem Children Zone – the former boasts 100% graduation rates and 100% college enrollment for its graduation classes, comprised of 100% young black men and the latter not only works tirelessly with students in the classroom, it also cultivates the health and overall well-being of its students. He also underscores the importance of active cultural competency in teachers – including but not limited to internships with immersion in low income and predominately black areas.
When asked what we can do, Sidney has quite a few suggestions. “My advice to parents is to advocate for your children. Parents also need to arm themselves with information especially if the school believes your child has a learning or emotional disability.” He insists that parents with children believed to have a learning disability should get their children evaluated by a private psychologist if they disagree with the school’s psychological evaluation. In general, he said the duty of educating our students is one that is shared between home and school. “The main thing is educating them at home. You should not leave the education of your children solely in the hands of teachers.” He also asserts that children must be stimulated with hands-on activities and creativity, despite the bland teach-to-the-standardized-test educational culture our children live in today.
What Nelson will do to help us all
“Nelson Beats the Odds” serves to uplift the many children who end up in similar situations dealing with special education. Sidney intends to make teachers aware of the detrimental effects of bias with the book. He also notes his intentionality with the characters in the graphic novel. “I wanted to create a book that has a diverse group of characters. Many times the black characters in books look stereotypical and don’t reflect our diversity as a race. I asked the illustrators to include children of all complexions, hair textures, heights, weights and disabilities.”
Sidney hopes to make a lasting impact with Nelson Beats the Odds:
“I know that there are boys and girls out here right now who are experiencing stigmatization, resentment, vulnerability and disinterest in school and I want to let them know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I want educators to read the book and see how their biases or lack of bias influence children. My special education teacher was a huge influence and inspiration in my life and I include her as a character in my book. Teachers have the power to give life to kids or take it away. I am thankful that I had a supportive family that believed in me and continued to give me life. The resilience that I developed during my childhood education experience continues to fuel me today. I want the kids to use all the negative things people say as motivation to overcome their challenges and defy the odds.”
I think this book and its message has the potential to make a significant impact, not only in the black community, but the educational community at-large. I personally haven’t seen anything or heard of anything quite like this. As someone who started with a developmental delay and was subsequently put into a special education preschool program when it wasn’t needed, I can attest to the frequency of this phenomenon.