When Saying No Is Not the Answer

To deny students of color support, mentorship and a safe space to talk about race and racism on the campus is to reinforce the common narrative that academe is a white, middle-class institution, argues Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana.

July 19, 2019
 
 

There’s an inherent tension with being a faculty member of color in a predominantly white institution. Faculty members of color face higher demands than their white colleagues in terms of mentoring, advising and counseling due to the underrepresentation of nonwhite faculty across academe. But junior faculty are frequently advised to “just say no” to any work that is not directly related to getting tenure. Students of color are knocking at the door, and colleagues, mentors and friends are all saying, “Say no! Protect your time!”

Just saying no isn’t an option. To deny students a safe space to talk about race and racism on the campus, a supportive and critical ear for their research ideas, and a role model is to reinforce the common narrative that academe is a white, middle-class institution that is not for students of color. Further, providing safe and supportive spaces for students of color is also creating a safe and supportive space for me as a woman of color in a predominantly white institution.

For me, being a faculty member of color comes with a responsibility to students in part because of my own experience as an undergraduate. I started at the University of Maryland at College Park with an interest in science and the environment and landed quickly in a major that was primarily housed in the geography department. At the time, geography had one black faculty member, a man who taught the department’s only courses on how race and class influenced people’s interaction with space.

This was in stark contrast to my experience in the geography department otherwise, which omitted race or dismissed it as an irrelevant topic. I distinctly remember asking a professor how the economics-based theory he was explaining related to the phenomenon of people lining up to buy the newest Air Jordans the night before they were released. The professor admitted he had never heard of anyone doing that and asked the class if, by a show of hands, they knew anyone who did that. There were three students of color in the class of 50, and we were the only students to raise our hands. Based on that, the professor concluded that the situation I described “didn’t occur” and moved on with his lecture.

The blatant dismissal of the experiences of people of color in that classroom contrasted starkly with the overt discussions in my classes with the black geography professor. There, we tackled such topics, for instance, as the varied quality of produce in grocery stores in middle-class, white neighborhoods compared with poor black ones. Needless to say, I took as many classes as he taught during my time at the university and even asked him to chair an independent study on environmental justice.

I compensated for the lack of people of color in my major with other spaces, including minoring in African American studies. It was there that I took courses taught by black women -- one faculty member and one graduate student. Their perspectives on race, class and gender reflected my lived experiences as a black woman growing up in Baltimore City during a time of white and middle-class flight, city budget cuts, and widespread disinvestment. Sitting in a classroom with a person at the front of the room who looked like me and validated my life experiences as important for academic scholarship gave me a sense of belonging in the halls of that institution of higher education. It was a feeling I wouldn’t have had without those black role models and mentors. Having black professors made me feel like I had a right to be there -- that I had a right to speak up and be heard. Such experiences were formative.

Thus, when the geography professor publicly dismissed my question about Air Jordans, I approached him after class because I knew that my voice mattered, a feeling I didn’t have as a college freshman. I told him that his dismissive response to my question alienated the experiences of the few students of color in the room. I was only able to speak up against that microaggression with the confidence that I did because of the black professors who showed me I belonged.

That exposure to scholars who studied how race mattered, and role models who gave me a sense of belonging, helped me transition to further education and work in predominantly white institutions with even smaller black student bodies. As I advanced, I found myself in the position of being a role model and mentor just as those black professors had been for me. At the University of California, Berkeley, I attracted attention from undergraduates of color and was able to provide them opportunities to learn about research in a safe, supportive space. I will never forget the team meeting where one of my RAs commented she had never been around so many black students on the campus before.

But as much as I provided those students that safe and supportive space, they provided me the same. As people with lived racialized experiences, they understood the importance of race to my work and cheered on my research as an important contribution. I felt safe and supported in their midst even as their leader.

As I look toward my first year as an assistant professor, I know that because of how underrepresented blacks are as tenure-track faculty members, being a black woman will come with demands from students of color. I also know that finding balanced ways to engage with those students will feed me as much as it feeds them. So I will set boundaries that allow me to prioritize the demands of tenure without sacrificing work that gives me life. I will limit the requests on my time based on a certain number of people or certain amount of time per semester. I will meet with small groups of students when possible to respond to the demand for interaction while not overcommitting myself. I will explain how they can support my journey to tenure and what earning tenure means not just for me but also for students like them.

I will be selective about when I say “Yes!” and “Not right now,” so as to prioritize what I can do now versus what I would like to do but just can’t at that moment. Finally, I will find ways to make sure my engagements are acknowledged in my tenure file by associating them with my service work as much as possible. But, no, I will not say no to paying forward what those three black professors gave me.

Bio

Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana is a Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow at New York University and an incoming assistant professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Albany. She would like to thank Charles Christian, Eva George and Sharon Harley for being her role models, advocates and mentors during her time at University of Maryland at College Park. Connect with her at her new website, Practical Ph.D., or on Twitter.

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