First posted in Education Week.
Is what I’m doing making a difference?
I ask myself that question almost every day as I zip across my elite university’s campus to my next class, meeting, or conference.
Though I hope to be recognized for my research and my contributions to society, some days I can’t shake the particular realities of being a black man in academia. It doesn’t happen frequently, but when it does, the memory sticks. Take the time some well-meaning black parents asked me for directions to an engineering building here at the University of California, Berkeley, and then exclaimed, “Wow, a black Berkeley student. Times sure have changed!”
I’ve encountered this type of disbelief throughout my life. Whether it was when I was placed in the gifted and talented program at Centennial Lane Elementary School in suburban Ellicott City, Md., which had a majority of white and Asian students, or finishing multivariate calculus in senior year at a high school with the same demographic makeup, well-meaning people consistently told me how extraordinary I was. In fact, so many commented that I started questioning my own authenticity. What exactly makes me so exceptional? Why didn’t I see more people like me excelling? Do I truly belong here?
Fortunately, I’m not the only one who feels this way. A recent campus-climate surveyshows minorities at Berkeley are more likely than nonminorities to experience exclusionary conduct. What would make people feel this way, you might ask? Words and actions known as micro-aggressive behavior, much like the quip from the well-meaning parents, offer omnipresent examples.
I’ve talked to people across campus about this issue: alumni who were in my position a few years ago, sympathetic professors who have struggled for acceptance for years, and colleagues who want to build community. These talks helped me notice another unfortunate trend: Not only do minority students feel excluded, they also feel powerless to do anything to enact change.
Looking for a way to respond, I decided to get involved in the “I, Too, Am Berkeley”campaign. A few months ago, students at Harvard University started the “I, Too, Am …” movement, with Oxford, Princeton, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and many other institutions following. The movement drew attention to current issues of race, culture, religion, and their intersection on the academic stage by highlighting students of color and their concerns at higher education institutions. Even today, education, it seems, is not a cure for institutional racism.
Not everyone on the side of change is for the movement; many have argued that the campaign doesn’t solve the issues it exposes. A good friend told me how little faith she had in “I, Too, Am Berkeley” a few weeks ago. To her, “Doing the other things (marching, Twitter campaigns, etc.) is a waste of time … well, if it results in no change.” She raises an important point.
But the effort has done at least one exceptionally important thing: It has shown that, even in the breeding grounds for the future leaders of the world, even with the gains that have been made in our society, we people of color still feel injustices we shouldn’t have to. Even more importantly, some folks seem to be paying attention to the conversation.
Let’s share some perspective. On May 17, the nation celebrates the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka—the ruling that struck down racially separate educational facilities as inherently unequal, paving the way for school integration.
Brown marked a turning point for our nation, but we should not forget America’s deeper history. The black American community did not have equal rights under the law in America since its earliest days, three centuries before Brown. Moreover, the very structures which stand today, that serve as foundations of American society, were inextricably tied to the slave economy, even the very academic institutions we frequent today.
Not surprisingly, many institutions haven’t been ecstatic to talk about their connections with slavery. Sven Beckert, a professor of American history at Harvard who led a project on the university’s connections with slavery, told The New York Times last year, “There has been no effort to make this into a broader discussion.” However, I agree with the historians about one thing: The subtext behind these historical questions has a direct relationship with the academic minority’s current struggles. The main question is: Are schools—K-12 through higher education—doing everything they can to make minorities feel they truly belong? The “I, Too, Am…” movement serves as evidence to the contrary.
What then, can be done better? One idea is to open up the larger discourse about America’s real connections to institutional racism and xenophobia, instead of assuming the racial and cultural realities of our society are former issues solved by a set of civil rights laws. The quicker we understand as a community how massive inequities have been built into the American system, the more time we can spend fixing real issues.
Moreover, because affirmative action is hotly debated in our society, might I suggest an addition to the discourse? A majority of the race issues concerning academia focus upon the integration of different races, cultures, and creeds into our universities. What isn’t included in the conversation is a movement toward true inclusion, toward making sure minority communities and students of all ages feel that they truly belong.
Racial and cultural micro-aggressions are actions taught in our society; and just like many other social norms, they can be untaught. These discussions about race and culture should happen on a larger scale, so people can unlearn ignorant actions, phrases, and traditions in our society. By developing fruitful discussions about cultural tensions in our communities, we might make some progress. It might incite change we never thought possible.
I know I don’t have all the answers, so I welcome solutions from all who want to make a difference. If you want to be involved, I do suggest two simple things: Reflect on your own racial privilege, and learn to listen. It’s obvious, by the “I, Too, Am …” campaigns that our generation is ready to talk.
The real question is: Will you pay attention?