This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
Shaneeka Favors-Welch holds a PhD in teacher education from Georgia State University. ORCID identifier is 0000-0001-8096-4579
Addressing matters associated with race and racism is challenging, particularly when you are the lone person of color in the room willing to actively engage in dialogue with white people that are seeking to protect their privilege at any cost. In this article, I use critical race and whiteness theories as interpretive frameworks to address the myriad of oppressive experiences I have had as an African American student in higher education classrooms led by white professors. I seek to illustrate how white norms are harmful to students of color by juxtaposing my experiences in predominately Black and white academic spaces.
Black Excellence Elevated
It was the 1980s, and life was good in Atlanta, also known as the Black Mecca of the South. I witnessed Black college students foraging their paths at the Atlanta University Center. Then I looked directly across the street and saw all the beautiful culture happening in the Harris Homes projects. Some would insist they saw a ghetto, but I saw Black folks determined to survive systemic racism at any cost just as our ancestors had done throughout chattel slavery, indentured servitude, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, false imprisonment, medical experimentation, employment and housing discrimination, etc. (Diangelo 2018). I distinctly remember walking down Auburn Avenue and passing by the highest number of Black businesses, churches, and restaurants that any U.S. city had ever witnessed. My journey ended at the home of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, a reminder of Atlanta’s rich civil rights legacy. This utopian and hyper-segregated landscape gifted me the spirit of Black excellence, which would become etched into my identity. Growing up in Atlanta also insulated me from having to experience racism as a youth.
Entrenched in the fabric of the city were public schools that honored Blackness. Schools named after Black emancipators and educators such as Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, Booker T. Washington, and Fredrick Douglass allowed students to be impacted by Black history every day. My teachers, except two, looked like me, had mannerisms like me, and would occasionally speak using African American Vernacular English like me (Edwards 2008). They did not start Black history with slavery but instead as ancient founders of the world. At the time, historically Black institutions (HBIs) awarded the most education degrees to Black people (Garibaldi 1997). Thus, I believe that by attending HBIs, Black teachers’ consciousness and ability to intentionally center Black epistemological stances instead of white majoritarian notions in their classrooms were heightened. Attending schools that validated Blackness contributed to the development of my confidence to walk in any space and “Say it Loud. I’m Black, and I’m Proud.”
Naively, I thought every Black student experience in America was like mine, having teachers whose backgrounds were similar to theirs. I was not aware that the Brown v. Board of Education court case, forcing school integration, stimulated the systemic removal of many Black teachers throughout the nation from their positions (Siddle Walker 2000, 2001). Living in a hypersegregated city, where people of color thrived in extraordinary numbers, disillusioned my perception that I lived in a post-racial society. As a result, having limited interactions with white people challenged my Black identity when I entered white spaces.
Black Excellence Cross-examined
After high school, I enrolled in a predominately white institution (PWI) situated in the heart of Atlanta. I was stunned to learn that the majority of the university was white students and faculty (University System of Georgia 2020a, 2020b). For the first time, I attended classes with students whose backgrounds were different from mine. I knew that racism existed but was unaware of how it functioned in academic spaces. My Blackness first collided with whiteness in a political science course taught by a white female professor. A unique aspect of the course was debating other students on topics selected from submitted essays. There were a few Black students in a class of approximately 200. Remarkably, quotes from my essays were frequently chosen for deliberation, and I consistently found myself defending Black epistemologies and experiences that negated the superiority of white norms.
White students protected themselves by engaging in white fragility, or “the responses whites engage in to reinstate racial comfort and maintain dominance within the racial hierarchy” (DiAngelo 2018, 2). For example, I was met with resistance and deficit comments when I spoke about the intelligence of Tupac and his music. In that same conversation, I highlighted how white people instituted policies and systems that intentionally marginalized Black people and communities. Several students responded with comments like, “Rappers are thugs” and “That happened so long ago, you can’t keep blaming your problems on us.” The discomfort and anxiety associated with challenging racism were made real in a painful way. I felt being Black in a white academic setting reduced my credibility. The instructor shied away from taking a stance against the deficit and racist comments made by white students. In another instance, a white male professor verbally questioned my ability to draft a well-written research paper. After I confirmed to him that the submitted essay was original, he stated that he would check it for plagiarism. Consequently, I stopped attending the political science class and, eventually, others. Realizing how pervasive institutional racism was, I succumbed to the discomforting feeling of attending a PWI and ultimately dropped out.
The following year I enrolled at a predominately Black community college where I earned an associate degree in mathematics with honors. Returning to a safe and culturally congruent environment was the antidote needed to thwart attacks on my identity when whites disagreed with any ideas outside of those meaningful to them. I went on and received a bachelor’s degree from a PWI. I had learned from previous experiences, that to be successful, I had to limit forming cross-cultural relationships and resist speaking up in ways that centered Black experiences. I became a mute!
Black Excellence Unwavering
Risking being exposed to more racism, I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in education at the same PWI I attended as an undergraduate. The enrollment of students of color had increased, but faculty demographics remained mostly white (University System of Georgia 2020a, 2020b). I was elated to continue my education in a program that emphasized a social justice framework. Even more paramount was that my cohort was primarily composed of Black women. During the first two years of my studies, I rarely spoke in class. Though I had much to say, I was afraid to voice my thoughts out loud or on paper in fear of judgment by white professors. I had succumbed again to the all-familiar feeling of having to be silent to feel safe.
I was annoyed that professors who claimed to be social justice allies required us to read antiquated, deficit, and anti-Black literature written by prominent white scholars when there were a plethora of scholars producing research that was critical and transformative. Experiencing Black excellence as a youth, I sought to read the work of Black and Brown scholars because they offered counternarratives explaining the macro/micro relationships of social, cultural, and political systems (Bell 2018; hooks 1989; 2014; King 2018; Ladson-Billings 2009; Matias 2016; Milner and Laughter 2015; Perry, Steele, and Hilliard 2003; Thandeka 1999). As a result of my frustration, I developed the language needed to express my fatigue and irritation with repeated demonstrations of white supremacist ideology by well-intended, self-declared, anti-racist allies. This behavior mismatch led me to ask if my professors’ actions were for optics only.
It was during the Standing Rock Pipeline protest and a month after the brutal police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille that I would move closer to answering this question I had about social justice and white liberal optics or performances. I began to formulate a response while enrolled in a special topics course taught by a white female professor. The course objectives stated that students “would redesign an urban teacher education program with an eye towards social justice and criticality.” There was an unprecedented amount of student diversity in the course. Represented racial and ethnic backgrounds included students who were African American, Black immigrants, Native American, and white.
Enraged with the lack of criticality in the course and deficit-based conversations that went unchecked by the professor, three Black female students collaborated to write about our experiences utilizing poetic inquiry, an arts-based methodology (Prendergast 2009). The gap in literature focusing on teacher educators’ beliefs and praxis in transforming teacher education with equity at the forefront prompted the invitation for the professor to join the collaborative. Data sources for the project included reflective journals and programmatic documents (academic catalog, institution’s mission and vision statements, and syllabi). The reflective journals captured how each individual conceptualized the course over time and with social justice and criticality in mind.
The following is a reflection from the journal I wrote after completing the course:
There were several uncomfortable moments where a white student and current teacher voiced deficit language about her Black students and their parents. She simultaneously relished in her privilege and white savior mentality. I wanted to yell, “See that’s an oppressive way of thinking.” I wanted to ask, “How do you feel you can enforce what’s right or wrong behavior as the be all end all.” I’m almost sure if I did, I would have been labeled the angry Black woman by her. One thing that I expected to happen that didn’t was for [the professor] to address the student’s deficit and racist comments. I was relieved when another student fed up with racial abuse, questioned the teacher’s perspectives about Black people and her white identity. According to Matias (2016) and Bonilla-Silva (2017), what happened next was normal; the white teacher started crying and insisting that she saw all people the same. She was color-blind. There was never a discussion about the current events that were happening like the violence towards Black bodies or the need that Native Americans had to protect their land from capitalism. How can we design courses without talking about racism and centering urgent concerns that students of color have every day? We can’t! Whites are comfortable when they are not required to speak about the atrocities their group inflicts among those who are different than them.
Upon completing the journals, each participant analyzed all the reflective journals. As a collective, we identified four themes—journey, discomfort, resistance, and program redesign—that were relevant to our experiences in the course. Next, each student selected one theme and created found poems, a well-known practice where writers choose passages, words, or phrases from collected data (Prendergast 2009). I chose discomfort as the theme I would write about.
The following is my poetic expression:
Why should White people be afraid of me?
This is how they justify neoliberalism and upholding White supremacy.
Those seeking to uphold these ideologies infiltrate any and all open space;
seeking to belittle and ridicule everyone who is a part of a socially constructed lesser race.
My discomfort motivates their plan; to silence me wherever I am.
But I am not a lesser voice thus I am not going to, lie or pacify,
my truth that has been filled with experiences in which I had no choice;
Because they have been passed down since slavery with a mighty force.
This force makes it uncomfortable to talk about race
and the true history that has taken place.
It’s easy for the dys-conscious to say,
“oh, just get over it and don’t bring it up ever again,” like on another day.
This same force permits the dominant to speak
and voice everything that’s wrong with me.
A dichotomy created either unknowingly or purposefully.
White supremacy says to minorities lower your voice
when using broken English in ears’ distance of me,
because I wish not to hear any of your ancestral tongues,
but you can raise your pants to fit our cultural norms.
It shuns a mother’s love for her child
as if she doesn’t criticize his running wild.
It uses language to condemn and oppress and call Native Americans protests a civil unrest.
How dare you ask if reservations still exist?
The discomfort we all feel
must be shared openly to understand the things that make it seem so real.
The de(construction) of Eurocentric paradigms must happen in the scholarly academic space
that has historically made so many feel out of place.
However, the first thing that needs to go is the idea of a pure unadulterated dominant race.
My discomfort motivates their plan; to silence me wherever I am.
Upon completion of our poems, we inserted them into the findings section of the article that highlighted our experiences navigating complexities within teacher education. Unfamiliar with poetic inquiry, I incorrectly crafted my poem by neglecting to infuse directly quoted words and phrases from each participant’s reflection into my poem. While reviewing the section, the professor removed and replaced my poetry with a poem she wrote without consulting me. There was no email, no phone call, no communication. My poem was situated in the silencing impact of whiteness, and she had just silenced me. I was both furious and traumatized because the instructor’s actions did not exemplify that of a professor who should be teaching a course on social justice in education. Out of fear of retaliation and previous experiences in academia, I did not confront her decision to remove my work. As time moved on and I learned more about critical theories that called for the centering of Black and Brown voices, the feelings I associated with Black excellence resurfaced, leading me to return to my roots, becoming unapologetically Black. It was then that I made the pivotal decision never to be silenced by whiteness again and to evoke a firm position to honor Blackness in the academy. After this reawakening, I voiced my concerns and feelings to the professor about her actions.
To be an outspoken Black woman in higher education is a dangerous and segregated experience. But I refuse to fear for my safety when in the company of white people who cannot see the damaging impact their ideology imposes on Black and Brown people. I consciously choose to stare whiteness in the face and renounce its ability to evoke feelings of inferiority.
These experiences have informed my recommendations to university administrators and faculty members. Students of color cannot wait until white faculty feel comfortable enough to face their history and racist ways. First, institutions must provide faculty with professional development and workshops that explicitly name white as a race, highlight the socialization process in creating and reproducing racial hierarchies leading to racist practices, and train faculty to use anti-racist and culturally responsive pedagogical practices in their classrooms and departments (Love 2019; Muhammad 2020; Matias 2016; Ohito 2019; Juárez and Hayes 2015). Next, the recruitment and retention of faculty of color are necessary to introduce and maintain non-hegemonic practices leading to more equitable and just programming valuing Black and Brown students (Han and Leonard 2017; Dixson and Dingus 2007). Also, recruiting white faculty that have begun to do the inner work of unpacking whiteness and shows a commitment to equity should be a priority (Dixson and Dingus 2007; Stenhouse 2012). Lastly, Black and Brown people must be protected from the emotionalities that whites use to prevent their discomfort when called out as racist (Dixson and Dingus 2007; Han and Leonard 2017). Forming diverse boards that can review grievances and make recommendations that do not need final approval from a superior can make higher education a more welcoming space for people of color (Han and Leonard 2017).
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