Every call to action surrounding race relations and racism in America assert the need for members of the dominant culture to take an active role in supporting and advocating for marginalized communities. Yet, I can count on one hand of all the people I know in the world, those who are White and are taking an active role in supporting and advocating for marginalized communities.
I recognize that there is not necessarily a correct or incorrect way to do this, but there are both ineffective and effective ways. More often than not, I find that people with the responsibility to support and advocate for these communities, namely educators, do so in a way that indicates neither interest nor commitment to doing so but rather aresolely indicative of recognition of the responsibility.
For example, it is one thing to dedicate 10-15 minutes of a class following nationwide racial tension towards the discussion of identity and race in America. But, what would happen if you didn’t do this? Someone is likely to create an issue of the fact that current event of that type wasn’t addressed in class and space to process wasn’t allotted. It’s easier to take 5 percent of your class to this dialogue to prevent those problems. So did you allow the dialogue because you truly care about Black students and people or because you know its easier and safer to just do it than to not?
Similarly, while displaying a BLM bumper sticker or t-shirt is usually a well-intentioned gesture, it can quickly become a problem when the person wearing the shirt doesn’t completely embody BLM. In many cases, the individual in the shirt or displaying the sticker can easily and quickly be commended and gain a lot of attention simply for spending a few bucks and doing nothing more, which only feeds the problem and recreates the cycle.
I hear and engage with the critiques of responses to social issues all of the time and sometimes I feel like in many cases, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t if you come from a place of privilege. Some would say a career in higher education aloneis damned if you do, damned if you don’t. People still pursue this path, no? Isn’t life about taking risks though and being unwavering about your beliefs?
Below are five very small, very simple and very doable actionable steps that educators can take towards truly advocating and supporting the Black students at their university.
1. Stop being so afraid of saying the wrong thing.
I understand that things can quickly go south for the most well-intentioned of people when it comes to dialogue surrounding race and diversity. This, understandably, is what makes a lot of people try to avoid conversations about race. In many cases, the problem is not so much that a person says the wrong thing, but rather that words illustrate thoughts and perceptions so if a person wasn’t thinking something offensive in the first place they wouldn’t have said anything offensive. Therefore, when something offensive is said, the assumption is that the speaker was already biased and prejudiced. If you’re truly not meaning any harm, and you are neither prejudiced or racist, then it is less likely that you would say something that would be so offensive that it would ensue a reaction of which you should be afraid.
Biases exist. The only way to address them is to practice and recognize them. No one is born understanding other cultures. No one is born understanding their own culture. It takes deliberate practice, and, quite frankly, making mistakes and learning from them. To learn a new language you have to make pronunciation mistakes and be corrected by Native speakers. Isn’t this a new language? Becoming comfortable with being corrected is only a part of the process.
2. Learn something about Black culture.
Love and Basketball isn’t the only movie with all Black actors, producers, directors, etc. It’s not even the best Black movie. (Sorry, but this is true). If Love and Basketball is the only Black movie you’ve ever seen, you got some catching up to do. Moreover, if you’ve only been acquainted to Black culture because of reality TV (Any Mona Scott Young show), then I need you to forget everything you think you know and also stop watching reality TV until your foundation is stronger.
Black. People. Are. Not. A. Monolith.
There is nothing that all Black people do except breathe and sleep, just like every other living human. Consuming more information surrounding Black culture will easily help you to understand this fully.
A great documentary to start with is Ava Duvernay’s 13th.
2. Some books:
- Invisible Man: Got the Whole World Watching or
- Between the World and Me
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X,
- Anything written by Sister Souljah.
- (There are many many many many many more books that can be used. These happened to be the first few that jumped out at me when I glanced over at my bookshelf).
3. You could listen to an episode of any of these podcasts. (The Read is preferred, but every podcast isn’t for everyone. Whatever works for you and your consciousness level is ideal.)
4. You could listen to any conscious rap album. In my opinion, anything with J. Cole is a good starting point.
5. A couple of movies:
- Hidden Figures, Fences, and Get Out are all good starters, but they’re designed to educate people about the lives of Black people. There is a need, as you gain consciousness, to look at sources that are intended to educate Black people about themselves or simply be entertaining. It goes deeper. Some sources are listed here.
It will suddenly get easier to support and advocate for a community when you actually have an accurate understanding of some of the realities faced by members of that community.
Please note: There is no source that will enable you to truly understand the experiences of Black people in any context or be able to relate to them. Be okay with that.
3. Just be quiet and listen to understand, not to respond.
No one knows more about their lived experiences than themselves. If you already have interactions with Black students, you are already being exposed to rich perspectives. The best thing you can do is just listen to understand those student experiences and validate their feelings. Don’t tell students they’re overreacting or responding to discrimination incorrectly. Most importantly, don’t tell them that an incident they deem discriminatory is not so. Simply listen, justify nothing, and ask as many question as you need to after first asking the question to yourself to ensure its not something you, yourself can answer. When asking questions, consider not only your intention in posing the question but also the potential receipt from the person requested to answer.
4. Learn to be okay with not being included in everything.
Most people would not be offended if international students were discussing aspects of their culture that they didn’t understand. They don’t have the experience of living in that culture, which means sometimes they do not have the capacity to understand the conversations. This can happen when more than one Black person is interacting and it should. Blackness is a very unique and distinct culture. Treat it as such and don’t feel the need to be included in every dialogue, joke or reference to popular culture. There will be times where the conversation is about your culture. It’s okay, self-awareness only makes you better.
5. Open yourself to the possibility that in some cases, students can teach you more than you could’ve ever taught them.
I’m not suggesting making your students your race teacher, as that can be even more frustrating and draining than having unsupportive faculty and staff , but sometimes people miss learning opportunities because they’ve convinced themselves that there’s nothing someone less educated than they could ever teach them. Learning from your students will only make you a better professional. Incorporate what you’ve learned into your curriculum or programming, but don’t exploit anyone. If you can’t manage not to do the latter, nevermind my advice.
This list is in no way, shape, or form meant to be exhaustive. It is solely designed to evoke some thought and change in perspective towards the necessity and method of supporting Black students. Feel free to challenge, support, or add onto my suggestions.