Survival Tips for Faculty of Color

by Cedric Hackett

English and African diaspora professor Shannon Gibney of Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) became subject of discrimination in 2013 when three White students accused her of making them feel uncomfortable after lecturing about structural racism. As a result, Gibney received a letter of reprimand from the college.

In 2016, a website called the Professor Watchlist was developed to guard against propaganda campaigns in contradiction of ideologies of conservatism.  Turning Point USA, a nonprofit organization and creator of the site, claims that its mission is to educate students about “true free market values.” Those who teach about social justice, social oppression and discrimination, and structural racism call academic freedom into question. Not only does the Professor Watchlist publish the names of professors, but also their contact information.

In 2017, faculty of color who speak out against racial disparities and discrimination have become targets and have even experienced death threats. Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, had to cancel public speaking engagements for fear of her safety after her criticism of President Donald J. Trump. Associate professor of sociology, Johnny Eric Williams of Trinity College, had to flee town due to death threats after he used a provocative hashtag as part of his strategy for challenging what he deemed systemic racism.

The provocative questions remain in the minds of these faculty members and other faculty of color: “Are faculty of color under attack? How do they navigate the academy in this new political environment while staying authentic and true to their racial and cultural identities?

With the advent of social media, faculty of color who utilize culturally responsive and relevant teaching pedagogies or who challenge discriminatory practices become the targets of conservative uproar, thus creating a new political activism toward those who would challenge their agenda. Dr. Saida Grundy of Boston University contends that:

Black academics suffer a uniquely racialized form of anti-black public harassment that is markedly different from their non-black colleagues, but disturbingly similar to violence against highly visible blacks across elite fields.  While this form of public violence has a long and relentless history of targeting blacks in the academy, I suggest that these onslaughts have increased in recent years due to both real and imagined black visibility and socio-political advancement.

There is much to say about faculty of color in higher education. Researchers have forecast the demographic changes in America–that by 2050, minorities will become the majority. Universities across the country, in order to bolster diversity among their students, have sought to diversify the racial and ethnic makeup of their faculty. However, our presidential succession seems to have altered the political climate and modus operandi of American politics while ushering in forms that are more conservative designed to undermine decades of progress for people of color.

In a recent New York Times article, Dr. Carol Anderson of Emory University wrote about the changing policies of White resentment. “The guiding principle in our new president’s government is to turn the politics of white resentment into policies of white rage-that calculated mechanism of executive orders, laws and agency directives that undermine and punish minority achievement and aspiration,”  Anderson stated in the article. If this statement is true, then we can only conclude that faculty of color are under attack.

Faculty of color are faced with many unique challenges in the academy while trying to support minority student achievement, including harmful appraisals compared to white faculty, academic support difficulties, issues of incorporation, and dealing with institutional intolerance. This often places faculty of color in survival mode.

In a recent Huffington Post article, Dr. Aimee Glocke, used the term academic terrorism to describe how Black studies departments were under attack at predominately  white institutions (PWIs). According to Glocke, “academic terrorism is when Black studies faculty are forced to think through every action for fear it’ll be used against them through disciplinary action, the denial of tenure/ promotion, and/ or termination.”

As Drs. Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy state in their seminal work, The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure–Without Losing Your Soul, faculty of color have developed strategies to manage the oppressive and adverse milieus within their campuses. These automatic responses become habits of survival. How can faculty of color turn their habits of survival into strategies of success?

The process of carefully walking on a tight rope through the academy can be exhaustive to the point of racial battle fatigue and developing acuity of learned menticide due to the constant oppression in spaces governed by their White peers. Smith, Allen and Danby, (2007) define racial battle fatigue as social-psychological stress responses that include feelings of frustration, anger, exhaustion, physical avoidance, psychological and emotional withdrawal, escapism, acceptance of racist attributions, resistance and fighting back whether verbally, nonverbally, or physically.

Faculty of color seem to be under attack, but here are five ways to mitigate some of the challenges:

  1. Think about who your supporters are within your department, the college and the university. Be sure you maintain a positive relationship with your chair, the associate dean and dean of your college, senior faculty who are leaders and persons on leadership positions (e.g. vice presidents and associate vice presidents) at the university. They can guide you in your development and part of this includes learning about leadership at all levels of the university.
  2. Seek out mentors among the group of leaders listed above as well as a mentor in a similar position at a different university (or with experiences outside of your college or university). Your mentors should be diverse. People of color need mentors and models that they can relate to on a cultural and experiential level. At the same time, it is important to have mentors and models from the dominant culture/ race because they can provide insights you would not otherwise get.
  3. Learn from others but keep what you know close to your vest. Be selective about who you decide to confide in, and be careful about anything in writing, especially in email correspondences or social media outlets.
  4. Look at your entire schedule. Write down everything you are doing professionally, in and out of the university, and any activity you do personally. See where the unevenness of time is and prioritize what you should decrease or increase given your current professional and personal goals.
  5. Exercise daily and eat healthy!

While faculty of color experience encounters of racial discrimination, we must continue to survive the encounters. Traditional sensibilities and attitudes toward faculty of color will continue. Therefore, faculty of color must evoke change, survive the encounters and not glorify the hunter.

Dr. Cedric. D. Hackett is an associate professor and director of the DuBois-Hamer Institute for Academic Achievement at California State University, Northridge.

Semantic Tags: African Americans/Black • Black Studies • Education • Faculty • Free speech • Minorities on Campus • Social Media

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