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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

College Teaching While Black and Female: Sustaining the Culture of Open Minds and Open Hands

An article in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education discussed whether there is a propensity for black female professors to become “mean.” You can read the entire piece at A Black Female Professor Struggles With 'Going Mean'.

The author writes:

...we forget that minorities and women, especially minority women, are not granted authority even after earning a doctorate and being hired in a very competitive academic market. It is an uphill battle for authority; they must prove their merit. For women and minorities, it is a frustrating process, and feeling as if they don’t have the same status creates distance between them and their colleagues and their students. I believe that helps explain why some minority professors become so overwhelmed that they "go mean." They become cold and, dare I say it, angry.

I have been there, struggling with coldness and anger in the course of my professional life. I have, for the most part, managed to retain the grace and warmth of my true self. But it is not easy.

As I explain to people, college teaching while black and female is, for some of us, a little like constantly putting your hand out for a handshake and having it ignored or slapped (and I don't mean the slap of a high five, but rather something more violent. However, even getting a high five when you meant to solicit a traditional handshake can be an odd form of cultural violence when performed by non-black people on blacks) students and colleagues on numerous occasions. Thank heavens, it doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes you get a true handshake of fellowship when you extend your hand. But because of all those negative experiences, after a while, you are more inclined to either keep your hand to yourself or, even without your knowing it, your hand begins to form into a fist at every new interaction, as you anticipate what comes next. Hence, for many of us who have been in academia for a while, extending your open hand for a handshake sometimes takes an enormous amount of psychic and emotional energy. These are efforts that are often unacknowledged and uncredited.

I have found that there are more open hands and open hearts in places where there is open-minded inquiry and mutual respect for others. Of course, we cannot always know where these places are. And even when places start out that way, they can and do change.  Hence, the job for those of us who care about these issues is to put practices into place that create and sustain the culture of the open mind and the outstretched, open hand.

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