Balancing Two Worlds: Issues Facing Black Faculty in Higher Education
Growing up in the projects of East Orange, N.J., during the late 60s and early 70s, my mother used to dress me for Sunday morning worship in a cream and burgundy plaid two-piece suit with matching fedora. As a newly single parent, struggling then with the recent death of my father, she would always tell me that I was her little man and that I looked liked a “tiny” professor. The educational attainment of important family and community figures were almost always that of the pulpit and a lived experience promulgated with the struggle for survival, a better future for their children and for equal rights for Blacks in America. In my mothers words, “Your success and accomplishments are not yours alone, but that of our community. In order to get that success, you have to work twice as hard as the White man.” What she did not tell me was that there is a legacy of societal racism that would severely challenge my social and academic mobility. I also discovered that in order to achieve a reasonably high level of publishable scholarship and academic success, I must learn, selectively adopt and then manipulate the traditional cultural paradigm in academia. In preparing for my life as a professor, I attended a graduate program with well-known researchers and highly regarded scholars in my academic field of study. Many were White and male. During this time, I was unaware of the level of bicultural existence necessary for garnering conventional academic prestige while still maintaining salient ties to the struggles in my home community. Learning how to function fluidly between these two worlds was paramount as well as stressful. I found myself adopting research paradigms that squarely situated me in the dichotomy of qualitative or quantitative methodology, which periodically validated White comparison groups in examining issues specific to African Americans. Yet, one of the most important needs of African American graduate students goes beyond obtaining a racially inclusive knowledge base. It relies on mentorship. Who was going to mentor me through the cultural norms of academia, present opportunities for pivotal graduate assistantships, assist in establishing publishable forms of research and encourage me to maintain my commitment to issues improving the experience of African Americans in higher education? Fortunately for me, my search for a mentor ended when I found a Latina assistant professor struggling to close the gap between academia and her home community. Through regular research discussions, meetings, presentation preparation and conference attendance, we were soon presenting at national conferences and publishing research articles. After obtaining my current faculty position, I realized that I was just as important to her survival and sanity as she was to mine. Although many Black faculty members are forewarned about the environmental press experienced in a predominantly White institution, its reality becomes clear as they engage in research, teaching and service. Even in educational environments where faculty are racially sensitive and conscious of the socio-political nature of higher education, a Black scholar’s lived experience as the object of racism and the antithesis of White privilege serves to educate students and faculty alike.
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