Incoming Fire from All Directions: Microaggressions Faced by Students and Faculty of Color
Filed in Features on February 9, 2017
by Harold Young
Multi-directional pressures and demands from administrations, departments, students, and parents are universal in academic life. What is different for faculty of color is the racist micro-aggressions encountered while going about the tasks of engaging a diverse student body and fulfilling other responsibilities in a challenging social and political environment. We are charged with supporting our students who also share these experiences.
In Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses (St. Martin’s Press, 2016), Lawrence Ross points out that it never seems to matter when or how often we bear witness to these realities, the incidents are marginalized as being isolated, or the acts of “one bad apple”.
My goal here is to share some divergent experiences to reinforce to others that we, as faculty of color, are neither alone nor insane, or even overly-sensitive. Here are a few examples of what I have personally encountered:
* During a faculty orientation, the facilitator suggested the primary way of recognizing when a student was experiencing high anxiety or having a panic attack in class was a change in complexion. This is a “curious” indicator considering that approximately 20 percent of our students identify as Black or African American. The facilitator seemed completely oblivious to the inappropriateness of that indicator for those who would have no apparent physical change in complexion.
* Following a controversial police shooting of unarmed Black men last year, I participated in two public forums which included law enforcement. A police chief opened his remarks by referring to Ferguson, Missouri, as the start of the problem between law enforcement and the Black community. When I pointed out that it is a 400-year-old problem, he immediately apologized and backtracked – standard responses when caught marginalizing and isolating the issue. Many attendees were obviously traumatized by the recent events and expressed fear of any possible encounter with law enforcement.
* In another forum, a White colleague expressed his complete understanding of racial discrimination because he has had a ponytail since the 1960s and 1970s and often felt rejected by some people. It never seemed to occur to him that while he could choose to cut his hair, skin color is not a choice.
* I witnessed a Black female student recounting her anxiety about being judged for her hair style choice: (a) If she went “natural” it may be interpreted as making a radical statement by the mainstream community; (b) a hair wrap might be critiqued as being “Aunt Jemima” and (c) wigs and other forms of “fake” hair might be interpreted as an identity crisis or trying to fit in. Her words to her classmate were literally, “you just don’t understand what Black women go through!”
* Finally, I attended a social gathering at a recent political science conference. Not recognizing anyone, I introduced myself to two colleagues and took a sip of wine. Seconds later a gentleman asked to join the table, introduced himself to my colleagues, then on looked directly into my face and turned his head without introducing himself. Make what you will of that!
As faculty of color, we must manage ourselves, encourage our students, and promote learning in sometimes less than ideal social climates. These tasks are often complicated by the denial or minimizing of the problems faced by segments of university communities and the society as a whole. We have to carefully choose when, where and how to respond to incoming fire lest we be labelled thin-skinned and aggressive. There are no simple answers, but know that you are not in this alone. As positive outcomes are dependent on multiple veto players, it is incumbent upon our personal leadership and the leadership of our colleagues, regardless of racial identity, to acknowledge these societal problems and constructively engage to develop strategic approaches to support one another. We then must follow through, and repeat!