Category Archives: Race & Ethnicity

It’s Complicated…

I was listening to Neil Pasricha, host of the Three Books podcast out of Toronto, interview American author Gretchen Rubin about the three books that had been most formative in her life. I was surprised to hear that her number one book was the same as mine. Unlike me, she was unabashedly enthusiastic to share that the book that had had the most impact on her as she developed was The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Her enthusiasm caused me to think about how I have been embarrassed to let people know that the Franklin book had a profound influence on me as I was growing up.

Considering the optics, sensibilities, and expectations of being black in the United States, if asked to name a book that helped shaped the character of who I am, I might be tempted to name a book by and about a woman, at minimum, and optimally by and about a black woman who is known for her race work.

On one occasion, as an adult, when asked about a book that had the greatest impact on me as a child, I revealed that the book was the Benjamin Franklin autobiography. I expected that some would find my response humorous. Instead, I was questioned about why I would choose a book about the life of a racist.

Whether or not he was a racist is not the purpose of my comments here. The podcast and the mention of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin brought to mind how some AHANA [African, Hispanic, Asian and Native American] students today feel burdened by the expectation that they must be motivated and act according to their perceived identity group.

Some students say that if they are identified as AHANA students, there is an expectation that they socialize primarily with other AHANA students even if they feel that their experiences and their preferences are more similar to other students. They say that they feel pressure to be on the same page politically as their identity group. They say it’s hard to find their niche and risk being judged no matter what they do.

In one of my conversations with an African American student, the student seemed to agonize in attempts to explain the difficulty of feeling free to be an individual in a diverse and politically divided community. After several thoughtful pauses and seemingly at a loss to describe the depth of feelings, the student gave up and said,  “It’s complicated.”

Outlets for addressing psychic violence

You might say it’s generalized paranoia or an unusually heightened sensitivity to slights, but if you were born Black in the American South like I was, seeing the indignities of Jim Crow laws heaped upon one’s parents and grandparents day in and day out, every word and gesture of White people would be filtered through the cheesecloth of racism leaving a residue of threat. Racism is not only about skin color: I see it as using perceived power to deny other humans their rights, dignity, and respect.

Recently, a friend and I were on a small intimate tour of a man-made lake in the Southwest. We were the only people of color among the tour group; the tour guides also were White. For the tour, we were all seated at tables inside the boat. To begin, one of the two tour guides visited each table to find out where everyone was from. For easy reference, the guide wrote the various places down. Using a microphone, the guide recognized each table by saying where everyone was from and who came the furthest for the tour and who was the closest to home.

When the guide did not point to our table or call out our state, I raised my hand and, with a smile, proudly said, “We’re from Maryland!” Rather than apologizing for leaving our table off the list or making a self-effacing comment to account for the omission, the guide said, in what I thought was a begrudging or dismissive tone, “Maryland wants to be recognized.” Hmm, I thought. I see you.

The tour was just beginning and I was not going to dwell on what probably was just an innocent omission. The guide might have been having a bad day, as we all do at one time or another. I willed myself to be upbeat and told myself to remember the prevailing racist refrain, “Everything is not about race.”

There was a table with two elderly couples directly behind the table where my friend and I sat. While not intentionally listening to their conversation, our tables were close enough for me to hear bits and pieces of what they said. Some of the conversation was about unwelcome people in their neighborhood, such as folks who liked to ride motorcycles and the influx of gangs in nearby areas.

As the conversation progressed, one of the men said that he used to work with a Black man who did not have a car, and he would drive the man to a place to get his check cashed and then drive him home. I don’t recall his exact words, but he conveyed that he was uneasy at first about going into a Black neighborhood. He ended the story by saying that no one bothered him and nothing ever happened to him. Hmm, I thought. I see you.

My back was to the man, so I never saw his face, but I knew that the person telling this next story was the same person who spoke of his experience of going into a Black neighborhood. In this story, he and his girlfriend, many years ago, were in a crowd of Black people at some entertainment event and a riot started. He talked about how the Black people surrounded him and his girlfriend and got them to safety. As I sat there, I was wondering why this man was talking about his experiences with Black people. Was my friend’s and my proximity a trigger for these memories? Hmm, I thought. I see you.

As the tour progressed, the guides gave interesting facts about our location. When there was a negative fact about some blunder or catastrophic event that occurred near the site we were viewing, a woman at the same table of four directly behind us would say in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “It must have been a Democrat!” I was shocked that she would do this during these times that are so politically polarized. Why was this woman making this comment? Hmm, I thought. I see you.

As I worked it out in my mind, I concluded without much effort that this woman was making the assumption that my African American friend and I were Democrats, and she was heckling us. My first instinct was to turn around and give the rude woman a look that I hoped she would interpret as my calling her an “idiot!” As she kept up the harangue about incompetence being equated with being a Democrat, I wanted to engage the woman in dialogue about why she had this opinion about Democrats, and why she thought it was necessary to comment out loud in this setting. I resisted the urge to turn around or say anything.

After the tour, my friend and I talked about what happened on the boat. I said that I felt as if I had been psychically assaulted because, whether I wanted to or not, I gave energy to thoughts about whether or not my experience on the tour had anything to do with race. I felt singled out and harassed, but mostly I felt impotent and powerless to even use my words.

In the September 3, 2017, The Chronicle Review, assistant professor Jason N. Blum wrote an article titled, “Don’t Bow to Blowhards: It’s worthy speech, not free speech, that matters most.” Thinking about this experience on the boat, his words resonated powerfully with me:

Political preferences now function powerfully as identities, driving divisions that can be deeper than those defined by religion or race. The demarcation between words and actions has blurred, as psychologists and activists argue that language itself can be a form of violence.

Students are being assaulted daily by antagonistic rhetoric fomented by the current divisive political environment. They have to use brain space and energy to decipher if their negative experiences are acts of racism and, more importantly, whether they should react or not.

After the boat experience, I found an outlet for my feelings when I talked with my friend. And when I write about experiences such as this, I have an opportunity to do more processing and critical self-talk. Students also need a place to talk about what is happening to them, how they feel about it, and what, if any, actions they might take.

Listening groups, or whatever name fits the culture of your institution, are essential support services for students’ mental health. In addition to providing a place to be heard, such groups offer students an opportunity to practice skills that lead to effective interpersonal communications and intercultural competence. These groups can be built into classroom time as a laboratory or they can be part of the cocurriculum outside of class. If students are to maximize their learning and experience, they will need a way to attend to their emotional disruptions and psychic wounds caused, in part, by the current complex climate.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – Honoring Dr. Bobby Leach

Leach

Dr. Bobby Leach
NASPA President
1985-1986

NASPA has a brand new award for equity, diversity, and inclusion, and it is named in honor of Dr. Bobby E. Leach, who served as NASPA’s first African American president (what would today be the board chair) from 1985-1986.

It was my honor to accept the “inaugural” Bobby E. Leach Award this past month at NASPA’s 2017 Annual Conference in San Antonio. Dr. Leach was an extraordinary man who accomplished much in his life. Extremely well educated, he attained an undergraduate degree in mathematics and science by the age of 21, and a Masters Degree and a Ph.D. after also excelling in military service.

His work life included serving as a high school principal for 10 years, associate dean of students at Wofford College from 1970-1973, and dean of students at Southern Methodist University from 1973-1976.

Bobby E. Leach Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Award Recipient Gwen Dungy with NASPA President Kevin Kruger and Board Chair Lori White.

Bobby E. Leach Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Award Recipient Gwen Dungy
with NASPA President Kevin Kruger
and Board Chair Lori White.

In 1978, Dr. Leach was the first Black administrator hired at Florida State University, and the highest ranking African American in the Florida State administration. He served as vice president for student affairs at Florida State until 1988. He passed away much too soon in 1989. In 1991, Florida State University named its new Student Recreation Center in his honor.

Following are brief remarks I made about Dr. Leach at the NASPA 2017 Awards Luncheon when I accepted the award named in his honor:

Obear’s Inspired Vision

How audacious and bold of Kathy Obear to put her inspired vision into action through this essential book for all who want to continue the work of dismantling racism. Ostensibly, But I’m not racist! is written as a tool to help white people. As an African American, I found the book not only intellectually enlightening but a courageous and hopeful foundation upon which we can all build.


From Kathy:

Get your FREE copy of “…But I am NOT Racist: Tools for Well-Meaning Whites” and encourage your colleagues, family, and friends to download their free copy!!! [URL to share: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01NCWVXEY]

And as a bonus, here are the links to the other 12 authors I am publishing with today! Get their books FOR FREE, too!!

Download these books while they are free and share the links with your friends!

How to reach Kathy:

Kathy Obear
President, Alliance for Change Consulting and Coaching
#1 Best-selling Author, Turn the Tide: Rise above toxic, difficult situations in the workplace
Co-Founder, Social Justice Training Institute
@kathyobear
Skype: kathy.obear
Pronouns I respond to: she/her/hers

Effectively supporting first-generation students

Like many, I was a first-generation college student whose family lacked the economic means to send me to college. With a state tuition scholarship from high school, loans, campus jobs, and help from my friends, I was able to attend and graduate from Eastern Illinois University (EIU).

First-generation students were probably the majority of students at state colleges and universities in the Midwest when I first attended college, but unlike today, most of the first-generation students then were not minority, low-income, or students who were new in the United States.

Today, students whose parents have had no postsecondary education or experiences are given the opportunity to participate in pre-college programs while in high school, and the equity-minded colleges these students attend often provide special programs to ease the transition from high school into college. Committed to their success, colleges who identify students as first-generation generally provide special support programs that include advising, tutoring, and opportunities for engagement with the broader academic and local community.

All first-generation students are not the same. As I recall my experience as a first-generation college student, it was another identity that distinguished some of my peers and me and caused us to experience college differently than other first-generation students. Being a Black college student on a White college campus less than a decade after the Brown v. Board of Education decision compounded the obstacles already inherent to my success as a first-generation student.

I was not aware of any special programs to help level the playing field. Upon reflection, however, I realize that for me, more important than a special program would have been a concerted effort by the college to create an inclusive and welcoming environment. I believe the president wanted Black and other first-generation students to feel welcome, but it takes every individual in the academic community to create such an environment.

I can’t speak for other Black students who were my peers, but I dreaded going to the faculty advisor I was assigned. I needed support as a first-generation student, and what I received was indifference. I felt as if the advisor hated this part of the faculty role. When I attempted to share my goals, he did not listen. My advisor made no effort to get to know me, and I felt that he hated me because I was Black and looked down on me because I was poor. The selection of advisors for first-generation students is critical not only for making the climate supportive, but for the ultimate success of students.

My being in class was awkward for everyone. No one looked at me and I didn’t draw attention to myself. I kept my eyes on my textbook, my notebook, the chalk board, and the professor. When I would feel someone staring at me, I would resist the urge to look directly at the person, but would just begin to turn my head in their direction. That always broke the stare.

One professor, who was my favorite, stands out for me because he was the one faculty member who looked directly at me when his eyes surveyed the classroom. All the other professors had this uncanny ability to look around the classroom and never see me. I should have stood out since I was the only Black student in any given class.

With the diversity of students in classes today, faculty who do not know how to help all students feel included should request professional development. At minimum, faculty can incorporate basic strategies to develop an inclusive classroom environment by making eye contact with all students, pronouncing their names correctly, finding creative ways to encourage all students to participate in class discussions, and providing opportunities for group projects in which students are randomly assigned.

As I was nearing the end of my first quarter at EIU, I began to worry about what grades I would receive at the end of the term. An uncaring advisor and awkward classrooms did not help my grades and neither did the fact that I had been having a good time with my Black peers and our new-found freedom. I decided to call my mother to alert her to what might happen if my grades were as bad as I expected them to be.

I remember using a pay phone in the Student Union. My mother was surprised to hear from me because I didn’t have the kind of money to make long distance telephone calls unless there was something important to convey. To begin this difficult conversation, I asked about every single person in the family. I could sense that my mother wanted me to get to the reason why I called.

Finally, I said, “My classes are really hard, and I don’t think I’m going to make it.”

“What do you mean when you say you don’t think you’re going to make it?” she responded.

“My grades may not be good enough for me to stay in college, so I might have to come home.” I waited for her response.

After a short time she said, “That’s too bad. You can’t come here because your sister has your room now. I don’t know what you’re going to do.”

I just hung on the line for a beat or so because I was afraid to let go. In just a few words, my mother made it clear that she was not going to rescue me. Shocked and afraid, I realized that what happened to me from this point on was entirely up to me.

I believe that support programs, caring advisors, inclusive classrooms. and an overall inclusive campus climate make a difference for first-generation and all students. I also believe that every student will have unique motivators that are separate and distinct from anything the college or university can provide. Being self-motivated is a powerful impetus to succeed. What first-generation students may need most is someone to help them identify what motivates them most.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dream…moving forward but not yet realized

When I read Katherine Mangan’s January 19, 2015 article in The Chronicle titled “Scholars and Activists Speak Out About Why ‘Black Life Matters,” more than what the faculty said, I was impressed because the young people appeared to be African American and faculty.

This combination is still rare even today so many years after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was clear that three out of four of the speakers/activists spotlighted had a faculty appointment. There was a professor, two assistant professors, and I want to believe that the director of higher education research and initiatives at Penn’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education also had a faculty appointment.

I am hopeful that young African Americans are choosing higher education as the place to use their talents and that universities and colleges are realizing their value.

I know that there should be many more worthy African Americans in highly valued faculty positions, and it would be nice if there were more professors than there are.

Acknowledging these realities, perhaps we are reaching a point where universities won’t have to steal star African American academics from their peers because there are too few available.

Perhaps we are reaching a point where one does not have to be “the only” African American in a department in order to be valued for what one can contribute. And perhaps on this day when we reflect on what MLK Day means to us, we can look at the parts of the dream that are being realized.

The young professors in the Mangan article are just beginning their climb up the academic ladder, and they may experience some challenges along the way. My hope is that they and others like them will not be discouraged to the point where they will leave higher education.

They have a foothold and others who follow them and those who have been on the margins of higher education will need to follow the path that these fine young academics are charting.

We are moving forward, but we’re not there yet given that I was still struck by the fact that these young African Americans are on the faculty in higher education.