Recently I was interviewed by a student reporter for our campus newspaper about a racially tinged incident that took place earlier in the semester.
This past October five members of a prominent fraternity on campus dressed in blackface at a Halloween party as what they saw as an effort to portray rappers. The story does not stop here.
Several days after the incident, photos of the young men were posted on the internet. Thoughts and reactions varied greatly. There were those who were outraged –mainly Black students and a few other students of color, as well as those who thought that the reaction of those who were offended were over-reacting. A majority of students were indifferent to the controversy.
Realizing the potential of a major controversy if not addressed, the administration acted quickly. Both the University President and the Dean of Students t denounced such behavior as insensitive, immature, arrogant and promised to take swift and if necessary, drastic action against the offenders. Such an aggressive stance by university officials pleased some, angered others and brought the issues of racial insensitivity and tolerance to the forefront of campus debate.
Just last week, more than 100 people showed up at a public forum to discuss the issue.
While the campus reporter came to interview me about the student/blackface incident, there are several examples of racial conflict and in some cases, hostility, that I and some other faculty members of color have encountered during our tenure at the university.
Racial tolerance and diversity are issues that have long been marginalized on this rural Appalachian campus. Such incidents happen from time to time.
African American faculty in academia (and other faculty of color for that matter) who are successful in landing positions in academia are often confronted with students who have no qualms in voicing the fact that they are intimidated, and in some cases, uncomfortable with the presence of a non-White or in some cases, female professors, in the classroom teaching them.
Some students flatly refuse to accept such an arrangement and withdraw form the course. The vast majority, however, do make the effort to learn from and appreciate the opportunities that diverse viewpoints can frequently provide.
During my first year of teaching, more than a decade ago, there were some conflicts that reared their troublesome heads, although they were overshadowed by more pleasant experiences. The negative situations tended to derive from insensitive comments from students who would use the word “Negro” as opposed to “African American” or “Black” when referring to the group. Some older students (mostly those over 55) used the word “colored.” For these students this term was a “polite” form of reference to African Americans.
During my second year of teaching I even had one student go as far as to say “your kind” when referring to African Americans.
There were those ever so paranoid White students (mostly male) who assumed that I (and all Black and Latino faculty) were beneficiaries of affirmative action and that is why we were teaching him and his peers.
For the record, I made it clear to people who held this point of view that I had no doubt benefitted from affirmative action and was not ashamed to admit it. Moreover, I made it clear that veterans, alumni, well connected people, White females and millions of other Americans from these groups have been the recipients of such a policy as well.
Given as to what I already knew as the sadly diminutive level of knowledge that many Whites, professors as well as students, had in regards to Blacks and other minorities, I was not totally unprepared for the naïve questions and comments I have been confronted with.
On my student evaluations some students complained that I spoke too much about African American history, diminished the accomplishments of White men, was hostile toward conservatives etc… One student even said I suffered from a “persecuted” complex.
The fact is that none of these charges and allegations were true. While I do not profess to be perfect and indeed, none of us are, I am indeed fair to all my students and allow all viewpoints to be expressed in my course. In fact, my former department chair mentioned to me that he noticed on a number of my student evaluations the comment “that I was very open minded.”
If anything, it was certain students themselves who were exposing their resentment with me for taking them out of their pre-conceived comfort zones. Many other faculty of color can attest to similar situations.
Occasional tension and ignorance notwithstanding, I will concede that I have seen considerably more interracial interaction among younger students and faculty of different ethnic groups on this campus than when I first started in 1997.
It is not abnormal to see students of different ethnic groups sitting with one another in the dining hall, student center, football and basket ball games etc… It is also not that unusual to see interracial couples of varied backgrounds on campus as well.
The same could be said, though, on a smaller scale in regards to faculty interaction. One possible reason for this could be the very low number of Black faculty on this campus. Nonetheless, such a transformation is noteworthy.
The fact is that something good did come out of the campus blackface incident. It has forced students, faculty and administrators to engage in an ongoing effort to address and confront their own assumptions, pre-conceived notions, arrogance and prejudices. Such a change in behavior does not happen overnight. One must constantly check themselves no matter how racially progressive they think they are.
This in and of itself, is a good thing.
Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)