A circa-1930s image of the all-white textile school faculty and students from the University of North Carolina State University, courtesy NCSU Libraries’ Digital Collections

The unbearable whiteness of teaching

by Fred Bonner

Eleven years ago, I wrote extensively about my experience as a black faculty member at a predominantly white college. The work struck a nerve. Indeed, when it appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications, it became my most highly cited work.

Combining personal experience with stories from colleagues and friends in similar circumstances, I came up with five obstacles to black academic success:

  • We were required to prove ourselves in class, even to our students, in a way white faculty were not.
  • We felt our identities were split between work and home, and typically kept our authentic selves out of the classroom.
  • We were expected to entertain our students as well as to teach, in a way our white colleagues were not.
  • We had difficulty connecting to professional networks historically set up and maintained by white colleagues.
  • We had trouble adapting to a chilly campus climate that still reflected white history and white experience, in everything from curriculum to statuary on the quad.

It’s been more than a decade since I published that list of obstacles. One might presume that campus culture has changed since 2004 and that the black faculty experience has improved.

One would be wrong.

I have found that my narrative and themes remain as relevant today as they were then. The biggest change is in my own position: I moved from Rutgers University, a predominantly white institution, to Prairie View A&M University, a historically black institution, where I hold the endowed chair of educational leadership and counseling. But even from my entirely new and admittedly more comfortable and secure perch, I can see that persistent obstacles to black faculty in academia have not lost their power.

Prairie View students on campus, courtesy Prairie View A&M University

The proof is in the pudding

I originally underscored my perception that as a faculty member of color I had to prove my competence before students would believe I had the intellectual capital they expected from a professor. They actually questioned my understanding of my own assignments, an insult I would wager no white professor experienced.

“Dr. Bonner, are you asking us what the reading meant to us because you didn’t understand it yourself?”

Hardly.

As a seasoned professional, I still believe that with certain audiences and in particular venues, my competence — if even only initially — is sometimes questioned. But now, “proving competence” is less about proving my abilities to my audience and more about proving my abilities to myself.

A square peg in a square hole

In 2004 I wrote with humor, “I am having difficulties logging into the network.” But when faculty of color are excluded from key professional networks, it is actually a serious obstacle to professional success. Because they did not belong to the same professional and social circles as their white counterparts, faculty of color were left out of conversations that took place in these informal social spaces. The “meeting before the meeting” would take place without them.

While “good old boy” networks still exist, I am far less dependent on them. There are enough people of color now in place to allow me to network beyond the white gaze, and it is a privilege to know other black distinguished professors and endowed chairs I can call up and say, “I have an idea; let’s put it into action.”

Yet, I am only cautiously optimistic because I know these black networks still rest upon a white foundation.

To sit in the seat of the scornful

This is a new revelation in the black faculty experience, and it describes one of the most sensitive issues on campus: tenure and promotion.

I was initially tenured and promoted at a minority-serving institution. This emerging research institution, part of a state flagship system, was committed to upholding high standards of teaching, research and service, so the tenure process was no less rigorous than the one at Research-1 institutions. Plus, I set high standards for myself as a scholar. My guiding philosophy, something I routinely share with junior faculty, is to focus on and mirror the quality and quantity of work from colleagues in the top institutions in my field: In my mind, it was all Big 10, Big 12 and Ivy League context, regardless of where I was working.

I never experienced discrimination on my way from assistant to associate professor, but I had several colleagues who did. Promotion committees questioned the veracity of their research, and the lack of “mainstream” appeal of their scholarship. I saw similar challenges on my way to full professor, personal proof that research from faculty members of color can be pushed aside and viewed as tangential. A summer fellowship program at Washington State University saved me: A senior scholar there advised, “Always tell your own story.” He was right: It is critical to get out in front of the narrative. Those who are evaluating your dossier may not understand your work, so draft a solid research statement about who you are and your relative standing in the field.

Minoritized by proxy

This is counterintuitive, but true: The academy gives more legitimacy to the scholarship of white faculty writing about issues of diversity, multiculturalism and race than it gives to faculty of color, who not only are writing about racial inequity, but also living it. This places black faculty in a Catch-22: On the one hand, due to the dearth of research on diversity and marginalized populations, you want all scholarship on the subject to flourish and to be made available. On the other hand, praising white scholarship and overlooking black scholarship is an affront to those scholars of color who are producing the same and even better work.

The etic, outsider perspective should not be allowed to consistently overshadow the authentic claims of the emic insider’s view.

Countless white scholars contribute important work to the critical discourse on issues of diversity and race that is essential to marginalized communities. The problem is when academe offers only tepid affirmation and support for faculty of color doing the same work. Worse, if black faculty point out the disparity, they are sometimes labeled as envious, jealous or unable to keep up.

The reality is that if our identities as black scholars are going to be the topic of discussion, it is imperative that we not only have a seat but also a voice at the table. So here is mine: We must be respected as scholars. We must be included in academic networks. We must be promoted fairly. Our scholarship must be lifted up as the fine, meaningful and deeply informed work that it is.

I finally feel my voice is part of the chorus of academia; I want my academic brothers and sisters of color to harmonize with me.

Fred Arthur Bonner II is a professor of education and holds the endowed chair of educational leadership and counseling at Prairie View A&M University in Texas.