Do I Matter?
My great grandfather took a train ride north from his plantation in Texas to Indiana. His son, my grandfather, had the same passion to take trains and would become an engineer and a licensed Sears carpenter. My mother, one of ten children and the only daughter, was told by her father that she had two options: become a teacher or become a nurse. At 16 years old, she went to Indiana State University to study Latin, and she would spend her life as a high school Latin teacher. She pushed me to be perfect.
As a 16-year-old freshman at Pepperdine University, I was happy to be out of the house and in college, but I was not prepared for being singled out in class. I was not prepared to live in the margins of academia, but in the margins is where I existed. I pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha off campus, and it became my lifeline to tolerating being in school. I missed out on networking in school because I only networked off campus with other Black fraternities. I even went on a study abroad program, but my all-white roommates were afraid of me. Within one week of living there, I had a mandatory meeting, where they all sat down and told me they were afraid. They said I didn’t say anything to them inappropriately, I didn’t do anything wrong, but it was my mere presence that caused them so much fear that they didn’t want to be in the same room with me. I was forced to move in with the only other Black girl. Incidents like this happened consistently throughout my years in higher education. Essentially, you live in the margins.
I have a bachelor’s degree, three master’s degrees, and a Ph.D. and other certifications, and I have had all of two Black professors. Both of them changed my life as they helped me visualize my career of being a college professor.
I have been a part-time faculty member in English and political science for 13 years. I have had countless evaluations, and all of them have been outstanding at all nine campuses where teach. I have heard every reason for not being offered a full-time position, and at every single campus, I have been on countless committees. I have been involved in everything I have been permitted to do, and still I have been told, “You could still do more,” even though they hire someone that they really have no idea of what that person will do for their campus. Instead they hire people whom they are more comfortable being around – someone who is not Black. I have never given up, as I am constantly thinking of innovative ways to improve and to attract people’s attention because I have been taught to work harder and better. Yet, I have had a white colleague who was hired instead of me say, “You do too much when you interview, which is why you never get hired full-time.” I don’t know what that means because my mother instilled in me that I need to work extremely hard in everything I do. I am a perfectionist, and I don’t feel that I have the privilege not to “do too much” or to be mediocre. I am not mediocre, but maybe I should be.
But as a Black faculty member, in many cases, I am the only one or maybe the one of two in the room. So, I am consistently confused with the other Black person who looks nothing like me. But, even as a part-time faculty member, I am marginalized until I become full-time and can be fully heard. I cannot sit in every meeting and help create curriculum and propose programs. I cannot even advise clubs. What is even worse is being invisible. I attended a professional development conference recently, and all of the white faculty who were presenters spoke about the greatness of AB705, displaying Black and Brown student images in every presentation to demonstrate how they were able to diminish the educational gap. Then, on the final day, one of them spoke about Du Bois’s double consciousness, and used the phrase “something like that” as a flippant comment, which was not meant to be disrespectful, but I looked at the hundreds of faculty members in the room, and being one of ten Black people in the room, I was furious.
In academia, we are forced to learn and read about white, European history and literature, while the wider community is not forced to read African American scholars. How do I know? That was my educational experience. If I had no interest in learning about Black history or Black scholarship, then I would know less than nothing because it is simply not assigned. This colleague’s flippant response that seemed innocent enough is one of many incidents happening often in California’s higher education system, a community college system that has an over representation of Black students. In fact, one of my students wrote in an essay saying that college curriculum “teaches students, that doing what the negroes do, will quite literally, turn you into a negro yourself, and be the outcast of society.” The students in our community colleges that have a 75% white faculty notice that they do not see themselves in front of the room, and they do not see themselves in the curriculum.
For seven years, there has been a push to help eliminate implicit bias within the faculty. Every semester, I sit in professional development, and I am not tired of it, but I am traumatized because some of the things that my colleagues say is disheartening and hurtful. In fact, one faculty member stated in an AB705 meeting, “We are finally helping them succeed?” Again, being the only Black person in the room, I asked, “If they are being helped now, then what have we been doing before?” The room fell silent, and no one responded, as they moved on to the next topic.
To be frank, I cannot imagine what students are experiencing. Well, I can because I was one of these students, just on a different campus. I was silenced and voiceless. So, I think of the students, as I keep coming to these professional development meetings muting my pain to edify full-time faculty who in large majority are white. I do not mind having these discussions if full-time Black faculty are represented at least in adequate numbers of the student population. Since we are not being hired, then we are left with explaining why our students should be heard when we are still muted.
I had a student recently ask me, “Why do you even stay in this profession when academia doesn’t want Black folks?” You would have thought I shared my personal experience with this student, but I haven’t. I have thought of this question so often over the years.
At one of colleges I work, I once had sheriff deputies follow me for a whole semester without me knowing. I was pulled over on a Friday afternoon. They told me that I was driving a nice expensive car and that they wanted to inform me that other people drive my car pretty fast, which is hard to believe since there were bumps all over the campus, and it would have wrecked my sports car. They wanted to create a list of all the drivers of my type of car. I told them no. They wanted to give my passenger a ticket, but I refused to give the sheriff the guy’s driver’s license. He was 19, and he was mortified. He was my husband’s golf mentee, and I refused to let him be harmed, so I made the officer speak only to me. After seven or eight officers showed up and 45 minutes later, I was given a front-plate ticket. The next week, the vice president called me into the office; he had spoken to the officers and told them and the chief to apologize. The vice president asked me why I didn’t say I was a professor? I told them I shouldn’t have to. I received no apology, and I never drove or parked on campus again.
So, why do I teach? Because I believe I matter, and my voice is important. But I am not sure if I will stay because my Blackness is something many of my peers cannot seem to become comfortable with having around on a full-time basis. I am not sure if it matters to have dozens more evaluations. I am not sure how many more committees I need to join. I am not sure if being innovative in designing mock courses for interviews or having nuanced course design will matter. I am not sure doing professional development and even designing professional development for my peers matters.
To my student, I am sadly debating leaving the profession and moving on to something else because I am exhausted of being undervalued, ignored, and disregarded by my peers, exhausted with the hope that one day they will give me a chance to further serve as their full peer.
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