Subtle Indignities: Why We Should Still “See” Race – Part 2

When I speak at  academic conferences, it sometimes feels like I am a disembodied head, so few are people like me in the space :)
When I speak at academic conferences, it sometimes feels like I am a disembodied head, so few are people who look like me in the space :)

Last post I gave the example of having suffered a subtle indignity linked to my social identity as a black woman at a professional dinner. Now I turn to a different situation.

Teaching a new class, I always find that I have to work extra hard with my students – more so than my white (especially male) peers do, I feel. Somehow, students project confidence on them, as the default, while they are sceptical of my qualifications or suitability for the task when I walk into the classroom.

This might seem like a very bold (if not unsubstantiable) claim and perhaps a little unfair toward my students? Well, I’ll have you know that I don’t blame the students, really.

Consider that it is incredibly uncommon for them to have seen someone in authority who is black. A national 2014 study showed that less than 1 in 5 American K-12 public school teachers is a person of colour, while nearly half of the students they teach are from minority groups. The likelihood of private school students having teachers of colour is smaller still.

When these students get to college, things are not too dissimilar. Underrepresented among faculty, people of colour are twice as likely to be contingent faculty as opposed to tenured or tenure-track than their white peers, and least likely to have made it to the status of full professor. This trend holds both in South Africa and the United States. And, at least in the US, the same goes for women, who make up 51-61% of adjunct faculty.

If we exclude African-American PhDs teaching at historically black colleges and universities, fewer than 4 percent of full-time faculty at US institutions are black. Believe it or not (and I sure hope you do believe it!), if colleges and universities were to continue hiring and promoting PhDs of colour at the present rate of “progress”, it would “take nearly a century and a half for the percentage of African-American college faculty to reach parity with the percentage of blacks in the nation’s population.”

Hence, a black woman of any standing in academia is a rare entity (exactly 7.5% of full-time faculty), and it would therefore be unreasonable to blame my students for their attitudes toward me and others like me when we are their designated professors.

But what does that mean for me as I stand there in front of them?

Look, I am the first to admit that I am a young teacher and still have much to learn in honing my skills in the trade – and you can be sure that I have made mistakes in my teaching. (It surely doesn’t help that, looking at me, people often think I’m about 10-15 years younger than I actually am.) But I have also invested a lot of thinking and effort into improving my pedagogy. I attend a teaching and learning conference every year and incorporate at least one thing I learn into my teaching the following class. I also am really passionate about what I teach and care a lot about my students as people who I would like to equip for their careers so that they can contribute to making the world a better place. For the thought, care, enthusiasm and effort that I put into my teaching, and the evidence-based methods I try to most use, one might expect students would give me more benefit of the doubt.

But, on average, they don’t. Their feedback tells me so.

And I am not alone.

A different context altogether ... where I don't stick out like a sore thumb :)
A different context altogether … where my qualifications are enough and I don’t stick out like a sore thumb :)

The black women and men who have taught before me (and those white educators who work to support professors in their teaching and improving learning at the University of Cape Town) testify to the same experience being a constant reality for black educators standing, in higher education, before mostly white student audiences. As further indication of how real and widespread this problem is, I have read in Inside Higher Education, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae and other media outlets about similar experiences of black and brown professors whose credibility is questioned in classrooms in US institutions of higher learning.

A book came out in 2013 that covers this topic comprehensively, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. An important dimension of the problem, which they put their finger on, is that, “Because students increasingly come to the classroom with a consumerist mentality, they feel entitled to a certain experience, a certain grade, a certain ‘kind’ of teacher.” Black women just don’t figure into that mental image – and so, in (un)subtle ways, they let us know this in their attitudes, class questions and course evaluations. Yes, I’m referring to multiple “microaggressions” (misogynoir?), repeated “subtle indignities”.

Yet, as is also common amongst us in these situations, our first instincts are typically to think that there must just be something extremely wrong with us as individuals. I have to work hard then not to feel like a fraud as I stand up before yet another class. Sometimes it is as though my students un/subconsciously are daring me to prove that I am not there because of charity. It is as though I am to prove to each class that I am not a product of “affirmative action” as generally misunderstood to apply to black people who are actually un/underqualified. (Mind you, that does not make me anti-affirmative action at all. But that’s a subject best left for another day.)


While audiences presented with my redheaded husband quietly wait to be wowed by his “inherent white-male brilliance” (he is frequently asked if he belongs to the Kennedy clan), students mostly unknowingly wait for me to slip up so that I can confirm their biases against blackness. The hard work I put into obtaining my qualifications, put into the etiquette one need master to succeed in a “white man’s world” and put into preparing for each of the classes I teach is insufficient as I stand before my students’ assumptions that I am “out of place” and must therefore surely be the “wrong person” to teach the course (or anything, for that matter). Another subtle indignity with which I must make peace as I go about daily life and try to give my gifts and thereby make my contribution to the world.

How many times I have come home to Dan and asked if I am really that terrible a teacher (tantamount to one who stands in front of students and reads the textbook to them!) and if perhaps I should give up the trade. I have been grateful in each of these scenarios for my husband’s thinking through the nuts and bolts of the situation with me and yet also reminding me of the inexplicit racialised – and gendered! – dimensions that almost necessarily accompany my experiences in the world as a black woman, and apologise for the indignity of it.

As he puts it, as an educated white male, people want to have confidence in him – even without being aware of it. By contrast, though it is not conscious, there is no widely existing desire (need?) to have confidence in me, as a black woman. In fact, historically, the opposite has been true. In one of our favourite movies, Something New, we learned that there’s a name given to the resulting requirement that we black people “put in twice as much work to get half as much credit“: “black tax”. Well, while I don’t claim to put in twice as many hours as my white colleagues, I can still attest to the fact that – at least, as far as the amount of effort and emotional energy I have to put into trying to persuade my students to trust that they can learn from me –“black tax” is real.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Matt Daniels says:

    Hiya Sindiso! Thanks for this fascinating series of posts. Just today I came across this interesting tool to quantify the gendered dimensions of teaching:

  2. SMW says:

    Thanks for sharing this informative tool, Matt – I hadn’t seen that but I appreciated Nick Kristof’s coverage of this issue (and these troubling findings drawn on in the site you shared) in his writing last month. I think the issues are getting increasing attention, which is good.

    Thanks for reading, commenting and sharing resources!

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