What Teaching Taught Me

I still remember writing my cover letter for my first college teaching job. I wrote that I wished to be the example for other minority women who wish to go far with their education. While my ambitions have proved fruitful at times, as an instructor I have too often become a canvass for a persistent anxiety surrounding the blacks who dare to exist outside of western conception.

I stood in front of my first class at the ripe age of twenty-five. I observed a college course as part of my graduate practicum and my mentor, a young black man, agreed to aid me in teaching my own course. I approached teaching with reservation. As an English major everyone said I’d be a teacher, but their foresight placed me in front of children. Teaching college seemed simply unreal. Flash forward to three and a half years later, I now design my own curriculum and teach part time at a University.

At this point I can predict my first day with little to no effort. I will walk in, greet the class to no response. Heads will lift in disbelief as I take my place at the podium.  Once I begin the class, one student will stand up or raise their hand to “double check” that I— a twenty-something black female— is actually the listed lecturer. When conveying this dynamic to others, I am commonly told that it is my youthful face that prompts said reaction. Sometimes I smile at this, wishing that I too could believe that it is my youth and not my blackness that prompts this reaction from my students. To issue perhaps the largest understatement of my life– teaching  proved quite didactic. However,  I do not think anything could have prepared me for the ways in which my pedagogy would teach me the ways of racism.

Interestingly, much of feedback as an instructor reverts back to elementary comments such as “she thinks she’s all that.” As an instructor is seems that some of my pupils confuse their own perception of me to reflect how I feel about myself. To intertwine this with race-gender intersectionality, black women who bear the attractiveness of self-confidence proves an insult to a world that demands her inferiority. Teaching has acquainted me to the silent demand to be less of who I am to appease the low regard to which the western world holds me.

Although an instructor, I am a black woman first and foremost. This means that the stance in which others are comfortable with me is with my head hung to represent a fractured self-esteem. I am expected to appear grateful, even groveling, seeking approval in everyone but myself. Holding my students to high standards proves just as insulting as holding my head high.  I am to exist solely to prove the “diversity” of twenty-first century America, not to challenge it. I am to fulfill at least one stereotype attached to black femininity, be it in lack of intellect, overtly dysfunctional, fatally unattractive, a young single mother, hyper sexual harlot, or a fatherless child. These stereotypes produce a discordance in their absence as the world seems unwilling to accept the black female body that refuses to be caricatured.

In article “Witness us in our battles,” Toni C. King, articulates findings from her study on experiences encountered by black female instructors of higher education. Her studies note a pattern in administrative action taken against black female instructors.  This part of the article resonated with me given an experience encountered early in my teaching career. About two and a half years ago, shortly after meeting one of my classes, the department chair called to inform me that a group of students prepared a petition to  relieve me of my duties. The grounds for their argument? I was “talking down to them.” Mind you, we had only had one session where I merely went over course objectives and polices.

The department chair, an elderly man of the majority, initially sought to resolve the proposed conflict by scheduling an in-class hearing. During said hearing the students were given the floor to state a series of comments that had no place in a college classroom. I was belittled, embarrassed and attacked by both my students and my department chair. I would go on to endure these feelings countless times throughout my career. Each experience seemingly occurring to punish me for bearing my blackness unapolegtically. Taken together, these experiences unveil both the students and highly-ranked faculty as holding the black female instructor in the same low regard.

This low regard often manifests in the disposition accompanying many of my students. Namely, many of my encounters involve students acting defensively. King comments on this dynamic in the following:

Often students unconsciously feel that being student to a black female professor is an indicator of their own failure and inaquedacy. This might apply be expressed as “If someone black and female is able me, when what does that say about me?” Black women describe their experiences as feeling “degraded,” “put down,” “demeaned” and “disrespected in the role of authority. (20)

Angered students often treat me as if I “beat them out” for a position. Thus, our engagements often possess a one-sided competitiveness that is both baffling and bizarre. King’s analysis supplements my own. Namely, the inability to conceptualize “deserving” a black instructor prompts students invent their own dynamic as a means to cope. History consistently places black bodies in the background as sources of labor, entertainment, sex, or comedy. The black body is seldom placed in a position to be taken seriously. Thus, student reactions often reflect the anger and confusion surrounding being prompted to take seriously what western world has up to this point deemed forgettable.

In reflecting on my experiences, it is a battle not to become upset when thinking about the manner in which many of students have addressed me. I should clarify, the words spoken is not nearly as troubling as the tone many students bear in our interactions. Namely, many students speak to me with a chip on their shoulder, or talk to me as if I am beneath them. This past semester I encountered overt passive-aggressive behavior from a predominately white class. These students would talk about me in front of my face as if I were not there, aggressively using the pronoun “she” in place of my title. I even had one student who seemingly waited for me to arrive (early to set up) to continuously gloat about this professor that “actually did something” and “was such an intellectual.”

Oddly enough, many of my students who possess this overt chip on their shoulders, take on class projects that speak to social issues in the black community such as racial profiling or just simply racism. King speaks to this in her article with the following: “Some students become hyperactive in wanting to prove their acceptance of her “ (20). In taking on said projects and social causes, these students appear to oppose the racist and prejudice their behavior brings to surface. Then, it seems the issue is with the individual teacher and not a bias the individual holds towards all blacks. This dynamic occurs countless times outside of the classroom when a prejudice or racist act is met with phrases “ but my best friend is black,” “my girlfriend is black,” or veiled because an individual adopted a black child or donated to a charity.

I have also been targeted by colleagues. Upon first encountering many of my colleagues, I am dismissed as another “diversity admit” prone to decrease the retention rate. Once my faculty status is uncovered, I am typically spoken to with condescension. Most of my colleagues only listen for the negative or look for me to make a mistake that proves what they thought when they first saw me– “she does not belong here.”  In face of the conflict my presence has incurred, my colleagues have insisted that I am the conflict. They’ve reprimanded my “overconfidence” and suggested that my experiences do not reflected a collective issue but my own faults. Many take it upon themselves to suggest my inferior credentials or stare at my curves to shame me for the imposition my black body poses to this traditionally white space. I remember an elderly colleague violently interrupting my conference with a student after the department assigned me to a desk that previously belonged to her.  Another college remarked that the department was “changing complexion” after noticing a black face amongst a sea of whites.

The pressure to be and remain inferior is a prominent component of blackness, and earns a troubling duality in race-gender intersectionality. In “A Letter to my Nephew” James Baldwin manages to capture the essence of required inferiority in the following:

You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity.

Black instructors face criticism because their ambition is an insult to a world that thrives on their inferiority. Yet, if we listen to those around us we begin to see ourselves as the problem. This mentality of course reflects what the western world has ingrained into the minds of Americans for centuries—blacks do not suffer from inferiority, they are inferior. As a result, blacks often place doubt where our self-confidence once dwelled, and queries where we used to have assertions, transforming us into the very inferior beings portrayed in “his” story.

Furthermore,  teaching proved instructive to ways of racism.  With my new perception of racism, it is also a struggle not to let my experiences make me hateful. At times it is even a struggle to get out bed and rise above all the low that awaits my endeavors as a black female instructor. I approach teaching with almost a neutrality these days, as it seems suicide to invest emotionally in what has been established to defeat you. This neutral stance does not prevent me from placing my best foot forward, but allows me to implement method rather than madness.

I may not have the physical whip on my back like my ancestors did in the 17th century or the dogs biting on my arms as my elders did in the 1950s, but I do have the cold, hard burden of white supremacy demanding the same inferiority required of my elders. Teaching bludgeoned my naive bones with necessary awakening so that I may properly weather the storm of systemic racism.

In front of the college classroom I’ve been protested, disheartened and belittled, —but I’ve also been resilient, confident, and black. I’ve seen the ugliness of white supremacy, yet I’ve never been more sure of my beauty and purpose as a black body on western soil.

The beauty and purpose of the indigenous African is not only the ability to withstand abatement, but to remain standing. I  am therefore not a victim, but the inevitable victor due to my ability to perform in the image of my ancestors.

If the saying “Those who try to bring you down are already beneath you,” is true, then may black excellence summon all adversaries to our ankles.

To all my sisters  (and brothers) in front of the classroom, keep teaching and be proud.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. kelley says:

    Great piece! White people are crazy and I applaud you for not letting their own self deficiencies affect your confidence, class, integrity and self-respect.

  2. Wonderful post! This was a very informative. I had no idea that you taught. I’ve been being to ask you..what do you like being called? Saraa or CC? Sometimes I call you both but I just wanted to know which you prefer.

    1. Thank you! It doesn’t matter but C.C. are my initials. Saaraa is a pen name I used while I was doing freelance. ❤

      1. Okay thanks for the heads up!

  3. C.C this is an excellent post that professional and non professional blacks deal with on an every day basis. I work for a large Chemical company, in my department we function as an engineering procurement company dealing with large capital projects. I experience this type of racism everyday, I work around a lot of Aggies (Texas A&M graduates) as a matter of fact they are giving Dr. Tommy J Curry, Texas A&M professor on Critical Race theory and Africana studies the blues right now from some comments taken out of context in 2012 by some right wing racist white supremacist sites. I have noticed white people hate black excellence they cannot compete with black people on equal footing they have to tip the scales. The workplace racism I and other black colleagues face in the workplace, is that white people attempt to never let you grow up in your profession so to speak, they want us black people to be seen but not heard. Whites, no matter how long you have been with the company try to make everyday feel like your first day. In these environments such as the college classroom and corporate white America, its important we stay extremely codified with our words and behaviors. Neely Fuller said you can look for an increase in whites working overtime to try and upset us to provoke some type of ill thought out response from us so that we can be terminated. I go to work expecting that the white people are going to be extremely tacky, trashy and terroristic. I expect them to behave as racist. A young white male (also an Aggie) told me that I was quite articulate, he seemed surprised by this, a lot of times when these whites make racist comments, the best response is no response at all. I point out those Aggies because they really act like it’s the Harvard of Texas or something, all white people are white but those Aggies have a special air about them mainly because they have such a strong network and dominate the hiring and good ole boy system here in Texas. “The black body is seldom placed in a position to be taken seriously.” This is certainly the case at my plantation. To this I simply point out the line in 12 Years A Slave were the white overseer asked Platt, “are you a Nigger or an engineer”. They are highly refined with their racism and seek to place all blacks in transactional roles rather than leadership roles. When you are black they discount your degree, they discount your college or university, they discount your experience or expertise, to put it short they simply discount your blackness. It’s nothing but the system of Racism White Supremacy, you are correct we are the victors for being able to navigate these toxic environments everyday with style, grace and blackness.

    1. Thank you for your response. I also really appreciate you sharing your experience. In my experience so many melanated individuals have rendered my plight an individual experience–another strategy of oppression. If slaves are made to feel “good” for their behavior then they learn to love the plantation and hate the runaway.

      It was quite powerful when you said “they try to make everyday your first day.”

      This could not be more true or more precisely written. You really are a powerful writer and thinker.

      1. Thank you for your thoughtful compliments, we really have to learn to validate ourselves because within the dominant white supremacist system that we exist in our analysis will not be a popular one. I have begun to incorporate and reference some of our great intellectual thinkers in my everyday experiences just like you do. I love how you reference Amos Wilson and Bobby E Wright. We have to keep our people relevant, if not us, then who? The dominant white supremacist society definitely will not. In that vein I am going to begin referencing you because I think you have a brilliant Afrikan mind therefore your thoughts are worthy of being referenced and repeated. Just look at how the dominant society seeks to make the views of Lil Wayne, Nikki Minaj or any other misinformed victim of racism white supremacy thoughts and views relevant. These individuals will say something off Code and their views will be echoed around the entire world. We have to push back against this deliberate attack on conscious black thought and I think one way of doing that is to validate ourselves and reference our great intellectual thinkers such as yourself as often and as much as possible.

        “If slaves are made to feel “good” for their behavior then they learn to love the plantation and hate the runaway”. C.C this statement couldn’t be more true. This attitude and backwards behavior is just as prevalent today as it was on the plantation. Dr. Joy Degruy refers to this twisted behavior as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. This mental illness is alive and well within the black collective. Also white people have been very strategic in implementing policies and laws that reinforce our backwards thought process and inability to accurately define and use logic to solve our problems. In Virginia they instituted a law in 1710 called the Meritorious Manumission Act of 1710 and evidently this law is still in effect. Essentially what this law did was reward the slave for any act or behavior that might save or help to advance white life. So if a slave told on a runaway or uprising, or protected his master’s life in some way, that slave would be rewarded with an extra piece of fatback or a butter biscuit, maybe just a kind word or pat on the head or if it was significant enough to the white slave master the slave could be granted freedom. Many confused blacks still practice this, they will do and say things that are not in the best interest of black people but are in fact in the best interest of our oppressors. You mention it was a struggle sometimes not to hate white people, I admit I struggle from time to time with this issue myself and I think this is completely normal. Although at times it may sound as if I hate white people, I can honestly say I do not, the more I develop my understanding and consciousness about the system of racism white supremacy and what it really means to be classified as white, I just understand this is not about hating, this is business, I am convinced white people will not stop practicing racism on their own, I accept that, my earthly assignment from the Creator is to use all my Life Force to counter white supremacy, I’m not angry or mad about white People practicing racism white supremacy, white people are dedicated to maintaining white supremacy. Likewise I am dedicated to countering white supremacy, it’s not personal and it does not require me to hate, it only requires me to be on my assignment like all the strong courageous black men and women before me, who were on their assignment until they took their last breath. I am a very friendly and loving person, I can speak to white people about non important things like the weather and so forth, I’m just not under any illusions about them, I know they are our historical enemies and I operate with them from that understanding, I understand they occupy the white side of the chessboard and I the black side of the chessboard. Thank you for you post they are most stimulating because white supremacy can and will take a toll on you, I think the intellectuals call it Racial Battle Fatigue, I definitely have it, it’s unavoidable for a somewhat less confused black male in a racist white supremacist society. That’s why your writing is so important, it may have been Dr. Frances Cress Welsing or some other black scholar but they say the WORST thing a black person can do is NOT talk about the racism that they experience, this has the most detrimental effect on our health and mental faculties. So thank you for talking about it!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s