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racism in academia
Frank Tuitt, professor at the University of Denver and organizer for the Making Black Lives Matter in Higher Education event, addresses  the crowd of more than 250 people. Credit: Andre Perry

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“You don’t pray for an easy road; you pray for a strong back.” This is how one professor responded to the question, “What has it been like to be a black faculty or staff member on a predominantly white campus in the era of Black Lives Matter?”

More than 250 black faculty members, administrators, graduate students and about a dozen “allies” from around the country crowded in a Columbus conference room a day after Election Day to offer their perspectives in the session “Making Black Lives Matter in Higher Education in Challenging Times: A Conversation for, by, and about Black Faculty, Graduate Students, and Staff-Administrators.”

It’s not often black researchers convene at all, let alone assemble to share something other than their research. Senior scholars of higher education and administration carved out a space within a majority-white conference, the 41st Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), to hear exclusively from their black colleagues. The rarity of the moment, just after Donald Trump was elected to the highest office in the county, created a family emergency, reunion-like atmosphere in which faculty spoke passionately about a range of issues including their children, tears they’ve shed after the numerous extrajudicial killings and their relationships to the enduring whiteness of the academy.

“I’ve had my Donald Trumps right in the meetings.” This came from a professor who expressed how hard she works behind the scenes in meetings to make sure other black faculty members and graduate students are afforded the same opportunities and room to make mistakes as their white colleagues. Particularly around issues of tenure and promotion, political battles in faculty and department meetings and other campus venues can take their toll. “I’m having a conversation with God all the time saying, ‘Is the academy where you still want me,’” she added.

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“Can we cuss?” asked another professor about the rules of engagement, to which one of the session’s organizers, Frank Tuitt, professor at the University of Denver, replied, “I told you to bring your whole self.”

“We are strong each day this world has tried to kill a piece of me and failed.”

We can’t take for granted that black faculty members, even with the protection of tenure, feel free to speak on their terms and to express the full range, and rage, of their reactions to the racism they witness and experience in academic life. Many expressed that black faculty are still chided for researching racial issues on campus in spite of the racial unrest that’s boiling over across the country.

“Too few black scholars have others with whom to process our frequent experiences with racial stress, feelings of disrespect and marginalization, and racial battle fatigue because we are often the only, or one of only a few people of color in our academic schools and departments, explained Shaun Harper, ASHE president-elect, University of Pennsylvania professor and executive director for Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, which sponsored the event.

So attendees exchanged their PowerPoint decks, academic papers for testimonials, songs and poetry not deemed scholarship by their fields. One poet’s refrain, “We are strong each day this world has tried to kill a piece of me and failed,” which echoes the powerful words of poet and educator Lucille Clifton, resonated deeply with the audience.

Harper explained, “Such storytelling is painful, as it reminds us all of how deeply entrenched racism is in U.S. higher education.”

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There’s a curtain of professionalism that shields faculty identity politics from students in the same manner parents try to keep their squabbles away from their children. That “safeguarding” keeps injustice securely in the confines of a department and mostly hidden from larger justice movements. Faculty bottle up personal and professional attacks on them and their scholarship. All of which leads to stress and attrition.

”Black faculty are still chided for researching racial issues on campus in spite of the racial unrest that’s boiling over across the country.”

The last major study on the race of professors, from 2007, estimates just over 5 percent of all faculty at four-year institutions are black.

Black students’ demands for more faculty coming out of numerous Black Lives Matter protests on campuses across the country demonstrate the heavy workload that black faculty provide to help students cope with the day-to-day bigotry faced on and off campus. The work of protecting black students is an immense work responsibility for black faculty that white colleagues don’t shoulder.

Black faculty don’t have the luxury to remove their doctoral robes, which affords their white colleagues an academic freedom that goes beyond the academy. Black professors always have to act in their professorial role to protect students but tenure doesn’t release black faculty from feeling nervous about their place in or out of the academy. “They can do whatever they want to do in this country and there are no consequences,” another faculty member said, using Donald Trump as a metaphor for faculty life. “But I’m supposed to work harder?”

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Another professor evoked the next president of the United States. “I have an admission to make. My mother is a Trump supporter.” An uncomfortable pause settled in the room. He continued, “It’s the ultimate your mama joke.” The awkward silence was filled with raucous laughter. Having the space to just be allows people to use the range of emotion that are needed in difficult times.

Tuitt, who has hosted a number of similar events in Colorado, said, “We sought to create a sort of healing, restoration space to remind ourselves about why we do what we do and how in these challenging times need for self-care.”

Overall, the session succeeded in that it confirmed that black faculty desperately need the space to laugh, cry and share ways to take care of oneself in a white-dominated society. In other words, black faculty lives matter too.

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