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.