Teaching While Black: Identity Navigation in Academia

06 Oct 2021 3:36 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Gabrielle P.A. Smith, PhD

Texas Woman’s University (TWU) 

I, like most academics, was anxious as I prepared for my first day of teaching. I agonized about everything, from my outfit, to the lesson plan. I questioned what my teaching persona would be, and if my students would like me. Did I even want them to like me, can like and respect coexist? I hoped my first day would go off without a hitch, I was not prepared for a run in with a colleague to be a precursor for the navigation of Blackness in the professoriate.

“What will you do with your hair” – this from an airy voice in the hallway waiting for the copier. “Excuse me?” I asked, taken aback as this tiny voice was referencing my Teeny-Weeny Afro (TWA). I did not know how to respond. I had considered how most white students in a college town in Alabama would navigate my Blackness but had not even considered a change in my appearance.

“What do you mean? Are you changing your hair or something?” – I decided a matter-of-fact statement was best suited for this copy room ambush. Stuttering ensued, and with a face two shades redder, my peer stammered out a sentence akin to “I just thought you might straighten it or something; I heard of people doing that for important things.”

Important things.

Black woman’s hair, accents (specifically from Spanish speakers, Asian people, and residents from the South), attire for LGBTQIA folx and Muslim people, and people with names deemed “hard to pronounce” are some of the aspects of identity often policed in academia (Boustani & Taylor, 2020; García-Bullé, 2019; Syed, 2020). Despite sitting in the ivory tower researching and offering insight into the discriminatory practices outside of the academy, we are not very apt at looking inward.

Recently a slew of online communities began discussing the idea of Black women’s natural hair being deemed as unworthy of special occasions or professional spaces (Inman, 2021). Discussions about Black women’s hair are everywhere, from the CROWN ACT (a movement to prohibit race-based discrimination against Black hair in the US workplace and academic spaces) and embracing natural hair and even talks about respectability politics concerning the use of bonnets in public (Johnson, 2017; Official CROWN ACT; Pitcan, Marwick, Boyd, 2018). Even now, as we prepare for the Olympics, ShaCarri Richardson’s hair is a topic of conversation, reminiscent (albeit more positively), of the way Gabby Douglas' hair was scrutinized (Gillespie, 2020; Inman, 2021). The policing of Black women’s hair was not new or novel. However, at that juncture of my career (2012), conversations about Black women’s hair were not as public or progressive. Most of my conversations about my hair happened with other Black women, however, these conversations did not include interactions with people I considered friends. Thus, my understanding of the navigation of my hair in my academic world on an interpersonal level was not that accessible.

In my two years at the University, no one had seen me with straight hair. The last time I straightened my hair was my last semester of undergrad at Spelman College. I had no desire, then or now, to straighten my hair. However, the message seemed clear, straight hair equals professional hair; the way my hair grew from my head did not. I wish I could say that I followed up with an eloquent, informative, and quotable takedown, but I cannot. I stated that “I do not straighten my hair for anyone or anything besides myself.” I ended the conversation there. Later, I broached the topic of my hair as a point of dialogue in a discussion in the Teaching of Psychology, a required course on teaching for all graduate student teachers, including me. The Teaching of Psychology professor was extraordinary and led us a transparent conversation that everyone in the space needed to hear.

However, that experience made me realize that I was ill-prepared for this side of the academic journey. I was aware that many people expected professors to be older tall white men. I was none of those things, and as a young, Black woman standing under 5 feet, I expected not to fit the mold. However, I was not prepared for the willingness of others to openly express their desire for me to tweak myself to squeeze into this ill-fit model. Professional expectations in the corporate world were well established, but the academic sphere only mentioned tweed jackets and rim-framed glasses. Induced assimilation in a career path frequently touted as aligned with freedom and agency was jarring. Also, as a graduate of a historically Black college, almost every Black professor I knew rocked natural hair unapologetically.

While my TWA has grown and expanded throughout my time teaching, the need to navigate my personal racial identity alongside my professional identity has remained constant both inside and outside of the classroom. I often teach courses that either center (e.g., The Psychology of the African American Experience) or engage Blackness (Global Perspectives) in ways that highlight my race more than other courses in the field. Classroom interactions vary widely based on course content and the identities that are salient to the course.

Being Black in the front of a classroom that discusses Blackness is different from being white or any other racial or ethnic group teaching the same topic. Words such as race and diversity are interpreted as Black when they leave my lips. Even when I express that diversity is intersectional and allows space for an array of lived experiences, the follow-up is always an expectation of a bias toward racial issues that will impact my teaching (Crenshaw, 2013; Dill, 2009; Icaza Garza & Vázquez, 2017).

Most of the focus on identity in the classroom is centered around navigating this for undergraduate students and not how to navigate it for graduate students, staff, or faculty. Further, our conversations about navigating identity in the classroom often center on students’ personal identities and those immediately around them. While the emphasis on student identity is essential, it is not the complete picture. Identity is relevant even outside of the classroom. In other campus spaces, the identities of all involved parties: teaching assistants, lecturers, professors, department chairs, provosts, presidents, administrative assistants, housing staff, facilities staff, and all other campus entities impact the social environment of our academic spaces. These identities are often not considered; however, they can and must be examined when advocating for diverse and inclusive spaces. Even the climate off-campus, in the surrounding social spaces of our campuses, are imperative environments to consider. Everything in our social environment bleeds into the classroom, including experiences informed by our societal position. Thus, we need to be proactive and consider the environment both within and outside our classroom doors.

If we want to create diverse and inclusive campuses, we need to make sure that we are actively attending to the needs of all campus members. Honestly, we need to be thinking beyond the classroom and attending to identity in all campus spaces. Are you examining the entire campus for areas of improvement concerning diversity? Are we asking questions about inclusivity and belonging concerning the library and the cafeteria? Are we assessing the makeup of our diversity committees and task force and ensuring these loads are not disproportionately distributed to faculty, staff, and students of a few demographics? Do we have diversity and diversity-related initiatives, but are they only regulated to certain areas of campus? Is the institutional rationale for diversity inclusive, or does it center on the educational benefits of students in the majority a critical benefit of diversification (Starck, Sinclair, & Shelton, 2021)? What are the local politics, and how do they impact our campus community? Are some campus members having to navigate belonging on campus and navigation of identity-relevant issues off-campus?

As a Black woman from the US South, a Social Psychologist, recently promoted to Associate Professor, who has issues with mobility and identifies in a multitude of other ways; I should be tapped to do things both related and unrelated to diversity issues. My colleagues who do not identify as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color, disabled, women, who identify as cis-gendered and heterosexual, and are privileged in various other ways (e.g., language) should also be engaged in diversity work. Every demographic is needed to ensure that our spaces are diverse, and diversity should not be a buzzword or call to action for historically underrepresented groups. The invisible labor expected of those often excluded from academic spaces is unwarranted. It contributes to preconceived notions when someone who looks like me or others with diverse salient identities steps in front of a classroom. The labor should be shared, but often it is not. Thus, the social categorization and social bias of Black professors, staff with disabilities, Latinx students, Muslim administrators, etc., are socially constructed by the campus environment and how we regulate diversity issues to certain departments and specific people (Author Unknown, 2017; García-Bullé, 2019). It is not enough to embrace diversity and increase the numbers; there must be concrete actions to ensure that the needs of all members of the community are assessed and addressed.

As stated by Toni Morrison, “When you get these jobs that you have been​ so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to ​free somebody else. If you have some power,​ then your job is to empower somebody else. ​This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”​ Reviewing our campus community and ensuring that it is accessible, welcoming, and inclusive to all, even those we disagree with, is imperative to true diversity. Dedication to diversity should be all-encompassing, it is everyone’s job, and the definition of diversity should always be defined broadly.Page Break


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