Making Black Life Matter in Academe

Colleges and universities must do more than just bring in a speaker from the movement, only momentarily suspending the whiteness that pervades the everyday life and operations of the campus, argues Eric Anthony Grollman.

September 30, 2016

In the spring, my campus hosted Alicia Garza, who gave a talk on her work as a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although her talk -- including the content and her energy -- was affirming, I left campus that night feeling underwhelmed. Had we invited another high-profile activist to the campus for a one-time talk only to pat ourselves on the backs and then return to business as usual?

I left wondering, do black lives actually matter at my university, or in the academy in general? Do they hold the same value as the lives of white people on campus? Is blackness as central to campus culture and history, social life, and university policies as whiteness is? As you can imagine, I would not be writing an essay with such a provocative title if I could answer any of these questions affirmatively.

I had hoped that we would have been mobilized, if not at least inspired, to ensure that black lives matter on my campus, rather than giving in to the temptation of self-congratulation. There is much that my campus, as with any, could do to achieve a racially just university. A crucial starting point is to take Garza’s advice to envision what it would mean for black life truly to matter on campuses. Many students of color can easily identify evidence of the devaluing of black lives on campus -- I know I could, too. But the more challenging, and likely more important, task is to articulate what, in fact, valuing black life would entail. And then to make that happen.

Below, I offer a few recommendations for making black life matter on campus, without relying solely on high-profile speakers of color.

Racial Diversity Beyond the Numbers

The value of black life at a particular college or university should not be reduced to the “diversity statistics.” At my own institution, the University of Richmond, we tout that 25 percent of the student body is of color -- indeed, commendable progress in the past few years. Yet the numbers of black, Latinx and Asian-American students are far smaller. To be exact, one in every four students may be of color, but only one in every 16 students is black. A black student, then, has a one in 16 chance of seeing a face like their own as they move from place to place around campus.

We cannot assume that a diverse student body produces diverse friend groups, organizations or even classrooms. We cannot assume that it eliminates racial segregation, prejudice and stereotypes. We cannot assume that having one student of color for every three white students is enough to build supportive communities for students of color, particularly when you consider the distinct histories, needs and interests of each racial and ethnic minority group. We must ask ourselves what we assume a modestly diverse student body will bring about on the campus; it may be necessary that we intentionally support or facilitate those changes through new policies and programs -- rather than hoping that merely a few more students of color than the previous year will create a racially just campus.

Race in the Classroom

We should also assess how to ensure that black life matters in a classroom context. How does it feel to be a student of color on college campuses where there is a low level of racial and ethnic diversity among the faculty? What if students never have a professor who looks like them in all their years in college? And if they are repeatedly in classes where they are the only minority, or at least one of a small few?

Representation aside, I worry about potential challenges that arise in the classroom for students of color. Could the academic performance of students of color be hindered by stereotype threat -- the fear that one is negatively stereotyped because they are a racial or ethnic minority, which becomes a cognitive barrier to one’s schoolwork? Are black students less likely to seek out help from white professors, fearing conscious or unconscious bias or that the professor will be less helpful than they are for white students? How often do faculty members call upon black students to give the “black perspective” on some issue covered in class? How many black students are assumed to be student-athletes, automatically asked for their team schedule at the beginning of the semester?

I can tell you, as a professor of color, the other side is not without its challenges. I regularly teach on racism, among other systems of oppression, in my sociology courses. Given the risk (and reality) of being labeled “biased” by (white) students -- a common criticism professors of color face, while white professors teaching on race are seen as “objective” and even an authority on the subject -- I am sensitive to the racial and ethnic diversity, or lack thereof, of my classes. I must emotionally prepare for days when a discussion of racism will feel more like standing trial before a jury of 20 white young adults to defend my life as a black person. It would be unfair to rely on the sprinkle of students of color to speak up, challenge the white majority in the class or even defend me when I am challenged.

Institutionalized Racial Justice

To borrow from the Virginia Anti-Violence Project, we should regularly ask ourselves the following question: How does this decision/action/policy humanize, liberate and intentionally include people and communities of color?

For every decision that we make at the department, college or university level, or for our classes or student organizations, we should ask ourselves what, if anything, it does for black lives (good or bad). We must stop relying on seemingly random, meritocratic, race-neutral and “colorblind” ideologies and practices to produce equal outcomes. To overcome white privilege and white supremacy -- which are always already at play (some of it even by design) -- we must intentionally and systematically prioritize racial and ethnic minorities and communities of color.

A college or university’s strategic plan is a good place to center black lives -- not just with one obligatory statement about diversity and inclusion, but instead in every statement of our goals for the next decade. We can ask ourselves how we make sure that alumni and other donors’ contributions to campus, and the way that we honor them (e.g., named buildings, statues), do not simply reproduce white supremacy and black invisibility. As we propose curricular changes and new programs, we must take a moment to intentionally assess how the changes impact people of color.

Colleges and universities can also do much more to celebrate black life that exists on (and around) the campus and to ensure that students of color feel valued, seen, heard, included -- that they matter today, that their predecessors matter(ed), and that new cohorts of students of color will matter in the future. We need to do more to guarantee that black staff members are not mere ghosts who clean our buildings, bodiless arms that serve us food at the dining hall or administrative assistants who simply greet us before we meet with some (white) person seen as having actual importance to our lives. We need to eradicate the sense of isolation, powerlessness, censorship and constraint that faculty of color regularly experience, particularly as we are overrepresented at lower levels (i.e., pretenure and recently tenured) and among contingent faculty. We need to better incorporate black alumni into campus events and initiatives -- especially those who felt excluded during their time at the institution.

To ensure that black lives matter on your college campus, you must do more than bring in a speaker from the movement, only momentarily suspending the whiteness that pervades everyday life and operations. Many colleges and universities have had the audacity to envision Alicia Garza and other amazing antiracist activists at a campus podium. But, the day after the talk, do these institutions dare to start a campus movement for genuine racial justice? I hope so.


Eric Anthony Grollman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Richmond. They are the editor of “Conditionally Accepted” -- a weekly career advice column on Inside Higher Ed for marginalized scholars.


Back to Top