Wade in the Water: A Contemporary Metaphor
By Fred Arthur Bonner II
Like most of the country, I spent much of early September following the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina. The resulting debate called into question my own self-definition as an African-American. By society’s standards I have attained some measure of personal and professional success. Some might say that as a tenured professor, I am different from the people I watched on television trying to seek refuge in the New Orleans Superdome. I disagree. The lessons taken from this catastrophe are equally applicable to my life as an academic. Following are four key lessons I learned from the tragedy.
A Common Location Does Not Constitute a Community
The media began highlighting the obvious racial and economic disparities in and around New Orleans almost immediately. For those who lived outside the clutches of poverty, the economic hardship of neighborhoods such as the Lower Ninth Ward barely scraped their consciousness. Their contact with those that lived “on the other side of the tracks” was limited at best.
Similarly, faculty of color experience life in two parallel worlds. Black faculty are often viewed as having less intellectual capital or fewer assets to bring to the table. They are often relegated to teach introductory courses or courses that many of their White peers view as non-essential, such as diversity, multicultural or ethnic study courses.
We Are All Shaped by Our World Views
Many people viewed the Katrina tragedy as an opportunity for poorer New Orleans residents to escape what was perceived as less than ideal living conditions. Commentators envisioned a new life for this group. However, for some Katrina survivors, leaving New Orleans and starting life anew was more liability than luxury.
This is similar to the differences present between Black faculty and the academy. The things academe in general — and White faculty in particular — hold dear is often at odds with what many Black faculty view as important. The imagery, symbolism and rhythm that helps define the African world view is at best difficult, if not impossible, to capture within the academy’s beloved “theoretical framework.” Because these things occur outside of their cultural purview and often fail to meet their rigid definitions of scholarship, White faculty are tempted to disparage them as “anti-intellectual.”
African-Americans Are Held to a Different and Higher Standard
It didn’t take long to notice the media’s uneven portrayal of Black and White behavior in Katrina’s aftermath. The White family wading in waist-deep water was “foraging” for food in order to survive. But the Black family, under identical circumstances, came upon their goods by “stealing” and “looting.”
Black faculty must also overcome double standards in order to succeed. All professors must come under review before final decisions on merit, tenure and promotion are made. Faculty of color are often more than capable of producing the requisite quality and quantity of research, but many become sidetracked with service-related obligations. They agree to serve as the minority representative on admissions and search committees or they become mentors for legions of minority students. These things distract from their ability to produce the required scholarship, yet those who attempt to recognize and empathize with this “double-bind” are often met with strong consternation.
The One Who Labels Possesses the Power
The labels, “victims of Katrina” and “evacuees” surfaced quickly in the news. But most disturbing for me was the “refugee” label associated with this group. The sight of masses of people languishing on makeshift cots, combined with the term “refugee,” allowed us to subconsciously shift the setting of this tragedy to some “other group of people” in some distant land. Was the media providing subtle cues to the American public in order to make this disaster, and those who were experiencing it, seem foreign and removed from our spheres of existence?
The academy is guilty of using similar tactics. Often, minority faculty members are referred to as “diversity hires” or “affirmative action candidates.” These labels immediately suggest that these individuals’ abilities are sub par.
These lessons constitute mere droplets in the ocean of experiences I will confront on my personal and professional sojourn. Perhaps these lessons will better inform us as African-Americans what we must do to protect ourselves from disasters, both natural and man-made. And perhaps these lessons will better inform others of the importance of understanding and challenging their tacit assumptions and stereotypes.
— Dr. Fred A. Bonner II is a 2005-2006 ACE Fellow in the Office of the President at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Va., and associate professor of higher education administration at Texas A&M University, College Station.
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