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Don’t Rely on Black Faculty to Do the Antiracist Work

Higher education leaders can do more than simply give lip service to the need to dismantle systemic racism, argues Shenique S. Thomas-Davis, who offers a number of recommendations.

August 21, 2020
 
 

The commercials are notable. The statements of support are well crafted and comforting. The town halls and open forums provide much needed relief. Your sentiments are very much appreciated.

At this moment, our nation and the world are slowly waking up to hear us, see us and witness our anguish, pain and rage. Let’s work to respond to one question: Where do we go from here?

For centuries, Black people have experienced racialized terrorism and dehumanization in the United States. Every day, we carry the weight that accompanies the acknowledgment that our lives, being and existence are not protected or valued. The workplace, where we spend and dedicate most of our time, is an institution that perpetuates systemic oppression and reminds us of the breadth and depth of anti-Blackness in work culture and climate. Specifically, the academy devalues the work (in and out of the classroom), creativity, research and commitment of Black faculty.

As poignantly expressed by a music industry veteran, “What the movement needs is meaningful change, not window dressing. Address the elephant in the room.” This movement will require more than diversity councils and committees, events and guest speakers, sporadic trainings on antiracist pedagogy, and tokenizing of a few Black faculty, graduate students and staff. Instead, it will be necessary for the academy to act with intention and prioritize their commitment through continued attention, contemplation and the allocation of extensive resources to the decolonization of higher education learning.

First and foremost, do not place the grave and insurmountable responsibility of dismantling this 400-year structure on Black and brown faculty. It is unfair labor added to our existing mental, emotional and physical exhaustion. Remember, we internalize the consequences of racism that demand we prove our humanity on a daily basis and continue to cope with the grief of seeing Black and brown men, women and children murdered without ramification. These images live with us.

Now that the elephant has been revealed, let’s be explicit, clear and direct in the articulation of what racial justice looks like and how to actuate intentional, meaningful change. It starts with the leadership of our colleges and universities. Racism is systemic, yet we know the system includes individual people who perpetuate biases. Institutional leaders need to take the important step of acknowledging their privilege, place and role in this system and identify the ways in which the structure serves to benefit them.

Here are some other ways, definitely not exhaustive, that higher education can do more than simply give lip service to the need to dismantle systemic racism and instead use this movement to begin to create an equitable, fair and just system. I recommend that college and universities examine:

  • Institutional practices, process and structures. For example, review the salaries of faculty, specifically faculty of color and those who identify as women compared to those of similarly situated white men. Ensure that pay parity exists and that the institution does not perpetuate systemic racism and contribute to the expansion of the wealth gap. On this front, consider the additional work that faculty of color take on that is supplemental to and beyond the scope of scholarship and teaching, such as student counseling, mentorship, problem solving and hosting events and guest speakers meaningful to communities of color. Recognize that the standards of the academy have undervalued such direct service activities and either 1) change those standards by acknowledging those efforts in tenure and promotion or 2) require non-Black faculty to step up and do their share.
  • Recruitment. Employ creative recruitment strategies to attract Black faculty and graduate students. Data reveal that historically Black colleges and universities have higher completion rates for Black students and many Black doctoral recipients earned a bachelor’s degree from an HBCU. Revisit the mechanisms used to recruit faculty, administrators and graduate students, including job posting language and platforms.
  • Senior positions. Ensure that people of color are represented on decision-making committees and in leadership roles. For colleges with leadership training initiatives, consider how you recruit candidates for participation in these initiatives and similar programs. Recognize and limit the influence of department chairpersons in the selection process, as nepotism and cultural matching can run rampant in many institutions.
  • Committees. Be careful not to make committee participation simply additional uncompensated work for faculty members, specifically faculty of color. Reimagine the purpose of various committees and ensure they are action-oriented spaces meant to share and shift practices, not just meetings where people engage in circular conversations and nothing important gets accomplished.
  • Institutional climate surveys. Conduct climate surveys led by an external organization on a continual basis. Hold frequent town hall meetings and open forums that allow for honest, difficult conversations on dismantling racism.
  • Events. Yes, events help to bring theory, practice and policy to life. But if you host such forums, town hall meetings, guest speakers and the like, be intentional about the purpose of the event. Furthermore, events should be met with expected outcomes or deliverables grounded in forms of evaluation beyond standard surveys. To note, just hosting events does not equate to transforming systems.
  • Antiracist curricula and trainings. Develop faculty members’ skills in antiracist and trauma-informed pedagogies and methodologies that can be integrated and serve as a foundation of curriculum development. (For more on abolitionist teaching, antiracist pedagogy and decolonization of the academy, start here: Ibram X. Kendi and Bettina Love.) That said, do not burden Black and brown faculty with leading those efforts.
  • Also, while ongoing and intensive faculty training in antiracist pedagogy would, of course, help to advance racial justice, such trainings have to reach everyone, not simply those who know a problem exists. For example, I attended a faculty development conference on culturally responsive and sustaining engagement at my institution. In one of the breakout sessions, a colleague confidently expressed that he does not see color nor a need for such additional consideration in his courses.
  • Campus safety. Reimagine and redesign the way you think about safety and security. Integrate restorative and/or transformative justice approaches.
  • Research. Acknowledge, support and encourage the research and work of Black scholars, even if it differs from the traditional, colonized academic training that solely values and respects quantitative outcomes. Qualitative research that explores and examines the lived experiences of people and groups is important and imperative to our field(s).
  • Publications. This topic deserves substantial attention and dialogue, but I would be remiss in not at least highlighting the significance of peer-reviewed, scholarly publications in the hiring and tenure process. Black scholars engage in relevant and vital work that should be valued and esteemed -- not excluded from prestigious journals and other well-regarded publications.
  • Academic and professional associations. Even though more associations are diversifying leadership roles and committees, our participation as Black scholars in these capacities is at times merely symbolic. In 2019, I attended a fairly progressive academic conference. A conference panel designed by Black women for Black women featured well-known scholars, authors and thought leaders. The session was placed in one of the smallest conference rooms, able to accommodate maybe 40 people, yet more than 70 Black women were in attendance. We had to scope out additional seating, stand and sit on the floor. Don’t minimize the impact of the work or presence of Black scholars.

Once the academy demonstrates that it is thoughtfully examining the ways in which it perpetuates systemic and institutional racist practices, then it will be easier to build trust and recruit and retain Black faculty members, administrators and students. This is the time for the academy to show up.

And right now, your Black faculty need time to breathe. This is your job, not ours.

Bio

Shenique S. Thomas-Davis is an assistant professor of criminal justice at the City University of New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College.

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