Moscow, Idaho- “I never thought about that”, one of my faculty colleagues said. I (Dr. Freeman) was sharing with her why it was important to me that I be addressed by my formal academic title within the university and other professional contexts. As a Black man in my mid 30’s, people often confuse me with being either a student athlete or coach, even though I completed my PhD almost 10-years ago. White people are generally surprised that I am a professor. This also plays out in the classroom where teaching in a rurally isolated context, I am often the first Black professor or authority figure that students have ever had to be accountable to and colleagues have to treat as peers.
On the first day of class I introduce myself using my formal title and ask all student to respect that request. You often see some students have a sense of confusion and bewilderment as the general culture in the Pacific Northwest is laid back and less formal. Based on informal conversations with colleagues and friends, some of them have suggested that some people may think that I may be arrogant, on some ego trip, or maybe masking some deep sense of insecurity. But it is interesting that many White peers, colleagues, and students don’t take the time to think about it from my perspective. It never occurs to them that I may approach my interactions with them as a professor differently because I am a Black man.
One of my close friends theorized that such thinking can be a form of White arrogance, an intentional outward expression of White privilege as a tactic used to exert social dominance against people of color. In this instance, White people are allowed to remain ignorant and be dismissive of how people of color, and more specifically in this case the way Black people feel about and approach professionalism. And rather than genuinely caring to inquire why a person may do things differently, there’s a tendency to interpret the difference using a deficit or negative lens. The assumption is for the person of color to just assimilate to the dominate culture without the predominate White culture taking into account the perspectives and culture of their diverse colleague.
When talking about genuine inclusivity, justice and equity, there must be room for people of color to incorporate their culture within the larger organization. Not only is it important that students be taught how to think inclusively. White employees within our organizations need to be challenged to think about how institutional cultures can isolate and alienate their colleagues of color.
The challenges we raise are pervasive and transcend university classrooms to include the wider communities and institutions that often incubate deficit-based ideologies about people of color, particularly Black males. I (Dr. Douglas) was wearing a shirt with my university name on it while shopping at a large and popular grocery store in my city recently. An employee approached me to ask if I was an athlete. Having gone through this routine many times with others, I responded to his question with a question: why do you presume that my association with the university is through athletics? His response: “well, you all have to get in some way”. I clarified that I was actually a professor in the college of education, to which he noted that his wife had earned a degree from our college.
This experience parallels classroom encounters where I have been asked my age by older White students, had the content of my courses questioned by students who never complain if every author read in their other classes is White, and undermined by White female colleagues who shed tears of sympathy when conversations about diversity are held and are more than willing to go by their first names to students in the name of supposed equity, but find it difficult to advocate for Black faculty when it is no longer to their benefit to appear as “a good ally”.
I (Dr. Freeman) have been in meetings where it has been frustrating to explain to institutional leaders that the challenges that I and other faculty of color face are not primarily centered on issues with students. Black faculty are authority figures within our classrooms even though some will ask the question, “Why do I have to call you doctor?” The larger challenges were navigating environments with colleagues and leaders who did not make efforts to learn about and understand cultural differences. In another meeting I attended, a new international employee expressed being willing to assimilate and accommodate their White colleagues, but found themselves frustrated that none of those same colleagues shared an interest to learn about them.
In our recently published article, Put Some Respect on My Name: Navigating the Use of Academic Titles and Personas, we offer suggestions to faculty of color on what we can do to combat these infringements. However, rather than put the onus on the marginalized to do all the work, we would like to offer suggestions that can assist White colleagues from various professions.
First, both in written and face-to-face engagement, lead with formal titles and allow your colleague to suggest less formal engagement; this includes when introducing university students and your own children to professional colleagues.
Second, as you encounter new or unfamiliar faces at the beginning of the semester, school year or at a conference, rather than beginning a conversation with “are you a student” or “are you an student-athlete” in professional settings, consider more open-ended introductions that leave room for self-identification and the diverse identities/positionalities that people embody: for example, “in what capacity do you work or engage on campus?” Alternatively, “affirming up” with initial collegial interactions: “are you a faculty member, staff, or administrator” and letting someone correct you is better than “assuming down” and putting your proverbial foot in your mouth.
Third, use your privilege to explain to other White colleagues, administrators, students and family members why faculty of color and women may engage their professional personas and titles differently than some White colleagues and male professionals. The work of pushing back against problematic assumptions should not be left to faculty of color and women to do all the heavy lifting.
Dr. Sydney Freeman, Jr. is an associate professor of adult, organizational learning and leadership at the University of Idaho.
Dr. Ty-Ron Douglas is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Missouri at Columbia.