'Presenting While Black'

Study suggests bias against and expectations of 'performance' from black faculty members during academic presentations.

August 19, 2015

There’s a rich of body of research suggesting that higher education can be inhospitable to faculty members of color. But little has been written about “performance” demands on black faculty members at academic conferences or meetings -- what they are and how they might contribute to overall concerns about climate.

A new paper seeks to shed on light on this topic. “Entertainers or Education Researchers: The Challenges Associated With Presenting While Black,” published in Race, Ethnicity and Education, is a phenomenological study of 33 black faculty members’ experiences presenting their research in academic settings. All were scholars of education, and many were interested in race. Common themes experienced by a majority of interviewees include audience critiques or questions about their research being sufficiently objective, and their appearance, energy levels and humor (too unprofessional, too high, not enough, respectively). Such experiences have made a majority of respondents sacrifice key parts of their identity so as to not attract criticism, and, for some, those sacrifices have been damaging enough to hurry their exit from higher education.

“Scholars and the general public have long acknowledged that African-Americans are often more revered for their entertainment value than their intellectual acumen,” the study says. “[Participants] revealed that researchers’ presentations are not seen as a form of entertainment at every venue, nor did every black scholar we interviewed speak of enduring this experience. Nevertheless, for 29 of the 33 black scholars in this study, and for dozens of other black education faculty we have talked to informally, it happens enough to warrant a discussion of the dynamics associated with presenting while black, and of blackness being interpreted as a form of entertainment during educational presentations.”

Authors Ebony O. McGee, an assistant professor of diversity and urban schooling at Vanderbilt University, and Lasana Kazembe, a graduate student of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, used a “snowballing” technique for recruiting respondents, first interviewing a small group of colleagues and acquaintances and drawing on their professional networks to round out the sample. Interviews were conducted in person and revolved around such questions as what it’s like to give academic presentations, particularly in front of majority white audiences; whether respondents had ever been told or advised to modify or alter their presentation styles, and why; whether audience members or panelists had ever used racialized language to describe the respondents or their research; and the effect of such language on their career aspirations.

Respondents were a mix of men and women, and senior, junior and tenured, tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty. Some 15 said concerns about subjectivity were raised in regard to their research. Twelve said their rigor had been questioned, and 19 reported that their data had been challenged as “quite remarkable” or “unbelievable.”

Five respondents said they’d been told their garments were too tight, and four received comments about their hair. Some 24 said they’d been subjected to comments about their “passion” or energy level, which the authors assert is an unusual word for academe. One respondent reported hearing, “He was so energetic and lively with his expressions. … Actually, he was so enthusiastic I thought he was going to do a little dance.” Another reported hearing that he really needed to “tone it down a little” from a white colleague who said the audience might think his passion was “making up for a lack of research subjectivity.”

Some 13 said they’d experienced “targeted audience disinterest” and 14 said they’d experienced audience “shock” about the high quality of the research.

A majority (20) reported receiving an “unwarranted” amount of questioning about the quality of their academic pedigree, and nine reported experiencing an air of “super surprise” upon revealing that they were at a top-tier institution.

A large portion of respondents reported expectations of being funny, or being the object of jokes or ridicule.

One faculty member who was ill on the day she delivered a lecture about social inequity in education was told by the organizer, for example, “Everybody told me that this would be the funniest presentation ever, but since you were a little down, it makes sense that you couldn’t be on 10. But could you at least give us jokes over lunch?”

Some 22 respondents reported changing their behavior in response to criticism in ways that violated their identities. McGee said in an interview that several of the respondents had or were considering leaving higher education for work that didn’t require such a sacrifice. And that’s the ultimate risk of the dynamic the study explored, she said.

“In order to be perceived as competent, some people have feel they have to sell their soul,” she said. “So they’ll move on to a space that’s more affirming. And we’re losing a lot of very talented folks who don’t want to put up with performing.”

The loss is compounded by the unknown number of graduate students who witness such episodes and decide not to pursue academic careers as a result, she said.

McGee said the snowballing method for recruiting respondents from professional networks may have predisposed her study to certain findings. But she said many faculty members who were not in the study have expressed similar complaints. 

There’s no simple solution to the problem, McGee said. But building awareness among audiences is key. For example, white audience members might choose to act like “allies” by deliberately setting a respectful, appropriate tone early on in discussions, she said.

Shannon Gibney, a professor of English at Minneapolis Community and Technical College who’s written about race and faculty life, including for Inside Higher Ed, said via email, “Unfortunately, there is nothing about this study that surprises me, or will surprise any black scholars or students of the way that race/racism function in America today.”

The problem of implicit bias in higher education, she added, is a “huge reason why I and many of my peers who have had predominantly negative experiences with our white ‘peers’ will no longer present to them inside our institutions, if we already have tenure. Instead, we are venturing outside to our home communities, artistic, journalistic and activist realms, which are often more receptive and self-aware.”

Michelle Asha Cooper, a black woman who is the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, said she’d never experienced the particular kind of discrimination described in the study. Nevertheless, she said, the “plight of black scholars in academe is real,” and the study is in line with general research about the climate in higher education for faculty of color.

Cooper said she was disturbed by some of the experiences described, but she advised those struggling to resist the urge to change their presentation styles in the face of bias.

“Know your content and be comfortable and confident,” she said. “Know the desired outcome -- what are you hoping to achieve from this talk? And know the audience. I would never encourage someone to dumb down their content or compromise their passion or make a fool of themselves -- these are real issues we’re trying to tackle in higher ed in terms of education, and they’re serious.”


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