Teaching while Black

Paradigm Shifts about Black Educators

James Baldwin once said: “Not everything that it is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It is time for us to face the truth that young racists exists, and they are in college classrooms.

I addressed this issue in a previous post where I shared my experience leading a lecture on African American poetry, when the ZOOM session was abruptly hacked by what seemed to be a group of teenagers who spewed racial slurs. (I want to reiterate, and even clarify, that this experience did not occur at the college where I teach, but at a different organization.) I linked the experience to teaching in higher education because of the racism and prejudice I have experienced not only from ‘older’ people, but from students. 

To help us face the truth of young racists in the classroom, I think we have at least 5 mindsets that we need to normalize. I will primarily reference Black/African Americans because I am Black. But, these concepts are applicable to all people groups within BIPOC. 

1. Normalize Black educators

Too often, students arrive to college without ever having a Black teacher.  Consider how many teachers the average student has from Kindergarten to 12th grade. We, as a society and an educational system, have to deem it unacceptable for students to go this long without exposure to a Black teacher. 

At many colleges across the country, most students will have even fewer opportunities to be taught by a Black professor, particularly outside of courses related to race. This means a student could graduate from college and never have one Black professor. How has that student been given a “higher education” void of an experience with a Black educator? 

2. Normalize Black educators as authority figures

Many students have never experienced a Black person as an authority figure. Certainly. not one who determines their grade and gives them feedback on assignments. Many do not adjust well. They struggle with a Black educator pointing out their weaknesses. Some assume that because the professor is Black the class will be easy, and the grading will be light. Many do not believe they should have to exert effort in such classrooms. 

Because many White students do not view Black educators as authority figures, they do not believe they have to talk with the professor when they have concerns about the class. Instead, they often opt to go above the professor’s head by speaking with a dean, a provost, or a vice president. This has happened to me numerous time. At multiple institutions, my students have complained all the way up to the president.

Rarely. do such students talk with the professor directly. And many times, administrators do not send the student back to the Black professor – the authority figure – and require the student first try to resolve the matter with the professor. This covert racism is often supported (intentionally or unintentionally) by administrators. 

The Black professor’s authority and perspective are disregarded. 

3. View Black educators as professionals

Throughout history, racist ideologies have dehumanized and infantilized Black people. We were forced to address White people as “master, sir, ma’m,” while we were called everything but our names. Many times, we were called “girl” and “boy” despite our age. 

And this same behavior is replicated in higher education. 

I can’t tell you how many times I have been called ‘girl’ while at work. Unfortunately, it wasn’t by my students but fellow colleagues. Without permission, some colleagues shorten my name and call me “Chas.” I have been told that the height of my heels was essentially an indicator that I didn’t have tenure. I have been gawked at for dressing professionally. 

Many of my peers have not viewed me as professional, but a little Black girl. 

On the other hand with students, I require them to address me as Professor Gunn. It takes all of my students a few weeks to adjust and learn my name. Typically, my non-White students will address me as Miss Gunn, which shows some level of respect. However, many White students will call me by my first name, and I have to correct them. 

Of course, this happens to teachers of all racial groups. Some of BIPOC students exhibit similar behavior. However, it’s not always a harmless act. Sometimes, it is a form of covert racism. It’s a way of saying I do not see you as an authority figure or someone I have to respect and certainly not a professional who has earned degrees and qualifications for standing in from the classroom. 

Students who are prejudiced or racists are often well versed in power dynamics. Privilege teaches them this. They use student evaluations as weapons to try to discredit the competency and character of Black professors. What’s even more tragic is the lack of awareness of such tactics by administrators and tenure committees.  

4. Normalize Black educators as assets 

To often when it comes to discussions and decisions about race equity, the motivation is to prevent lawsuits, to appear political correctly and to portray a positive image. None of these should be motivations for doing the right thing. 

A part of being educated should include being taught by educators of diverse racial groups, experiences, perspectives etc. Such diversity will foster critical thinking and intellectualism in our students. 

I remember reading a book in graduate school that I didn’t particularly care for, and my professor challenged me to see what I could learn from the text, despite it not being my aesthetic. That gave me a new mindset and a new window into the text. I didn’t have to like the book to learn from it. That was the purpose of the class: learning. 

Everyone benefits from having Black educators. I will say it again, everyone benefits from having Black educators. Departments are missing a vital asset if they do not have multiple Black professors. 

5. Normalize Black excellence 

Many associate ‘Black’ with inferior, ghetto, less than, etc. An anti-Black sentiment exists in our world and among all people groups. These mindsets hinder many from seeing Black excellence in its many forms and variations. 

Perhaps, that class in which students rated the Black professor low was an example of Black excellence. One in which an educator required a level of rigor in her course. Black excellence may be a pair of heels in a department meeting filled with sneakers and flats. Black excellence may be staying late to work one-on-one with students. It may be applying for grants. 

In whatever way it manifests, it should be applauded, encouraged, supported and funded. Too often, Black professors are told to ‘tone it down,’ that we are ‘doing too much,’ that we should not be ‘so tough’ on students or that we need to ‘change our approach.’ Like any educator, Black professors should be given critical feedback, and we should grow in response to such feedback. 

However, feedback should not be rooted in anti-Black paradigm or one that requires Black educators to bring less of themselves, their philosophies and their passion into the classroom stifles and suppress us. 

These five paradigms will not completely eradicate covert racism in the classroom or in the hallways, but I do think these are appropriate places to start. We have to face the challenges that many Black professors face, if we are going to make colleges and universities a better place for everyone. 

Our students need us to get this right, even the racist ones. 

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Being called the n* word during a ZOOM bomb

I remember the first time I was called a “nigger.”

It was a summer night, and I was downtown with two friends, Reggie and Devon. We were all college students, and we were taking a break from the study life to enjoy the city life of Nashville. 

We were talking and laughing as we typically did. Enjoying each other’s company when a school bus that been converted into a party bus drove down the street. 

We could see young White people having what appeared to be a good time. And out of the window, one of them yelled: “Niggers!”

We stopped in our tracks. Ready to fight. Ready to scream. Ready to weep. 

Although I have long forgotten their faces, their words linger in my ears. I grew up in rural Alabama where Confederate flags were as common as dandelions, but no one ever had ever called me a “nigger,” at least not to my face. 

Fast forward nearly a decade later, and I am leading a public lecture on African American poetry via ZOOM. I have shared my screen with participants, and I am about to play a video of Phylicia Rashad reading “Lift Every Voice” by James Weldon Johnson. 

I noticed a black swastika has been written her on forehead, and I almost don’t register it as real life. 

I hear the voice of my friend, Paul, commanding the behavior to stop. 

In a split second, I have lost control, and the white board feature of ZOOM is now displaying racial slurs. The one I remember clearly is: “nigger.”

Participants in the room began verbally condemning the behavior. Telling whomever it was that their behavior was not okay and they needed to stop. 

Then we heard voices – and it sounded like young voices, teenaged voices – who began to provoke, pester and mock the group. I use ZOOM for work. so I wasn’t unfamiliar with the platform. I calmly, but desperately tried, to find out how to take back control and kick out the participants who spewing racist and anti-Semantic speech.  

Unfortunately, the intruders had hacked into the space and taken over hosting control. They gave themselves fake names. One even used my name. I am not sure how long the ordeal lasted, but we eventually had to end the meeting and try again. 

The event’s organizer was able to create a new ZOOM link and send it to those who had registered. But nearly 25% of the program time had been lost due to the disruption. Thankfully, the legitimate participants returned, and we were able to continue with the program. 

As the events unfolded, I was not completely shocked and surprised about the racial slurs. But, I was shocked at how I was unable to stop or mitigate the situation. 

As a Black American, I know the reality of racism and prejudice. It is not something that is confined to history books and black and white films. It’s my lived, everyday experience, even today.

I want to take this space not to address cyber security of online programs. I don’t cast blame on the event organizers, and I have intentionally not mentioned their name. I’m writing this because I want to address two points. 

First, the power of the bystander. 

While I was trying to figure out how to stop the hackers from sharing their annotation board and making rude verbal comments, I could hear many of the participants vocally say that the behavior was not ok. They addressed the hackers and told them they needed to leave. 

To the participants, I want to say “thank you.” Thank you for using your voice to say hate speech is not tolerated. Thank you for not being silent and for not excusing racist behavior. Thank you for requesting that the organizer report the incident to the police and seek to find the perpetuators. 

It is encouraging to see people – of all shades – stand up and speak out against injustices. If we are going to be a better nation, it will take all of us participating. 

Yesterday, I witnessed a group of individuals who refused to be passive or silent bystanders. They used their voice to stop hate and foolishness.

To the event organizers, I want to say “thank you.” You, as well, condemned the behavior and took the steps within your means to report and address it. You also apologized profusely.

Yes, we all should speak up when injustice occurs in front us, but the truth we – as a society – don’t always do that, especially when we are not the target. When people use their voice for good, I think it’s important to acknowledge that. It’s also a reminder to me, as a Black woman, that there are people of all hues striving to end racial oppression in this country. 

The second point that I want to address relates to the hackers. From their voices and one even turned on her camera, it was clear that these were a group of teenagers and that this was a coordinated effort.

We – as a society – have often believed that false narrative that all racists are old people who lived in a different time. However, yesterday’s hackers clearly revealed that not all racists are AARP card carriers. Some of them have pimples and are planning for prom.

It’s time to deconstruct this false narrative that only old people are racists. The fact is no one wakes up a racist. You are groomed, trained and taught to be one. Unfortunately, these young people are being trained by their families and/or the company they keep to be racists. Although we don’t always like to use that term, I don’t know what else you call it, when people write racial slurs.

Secondly, these same young people sit or will sit in college classrooms.

I am a college professor. And, from the first class I taught until the current ones I teach now, race has always been a thorn in my side. It seeks to stifle and silence me. It rears its head when I return essays with grades less than an A. It appears in glances that question my age and my credentials. It’s reflected in low markings on student evaluations. It’s backed by decades of research. 

Yet, in higher education, we are unable to address the baby – yet huge – elephant in the room. We have racists sitting in our classrooms. We have students with prejudices. We enroll students with bias. And not all of these students are hiding behind white sheets and black screens. 

I think it’s time for us to have a conversation about young racists.

Although, I have seen it clearly when I have taught at private universities, even Christian ones, and I see it teaching at a community college. Not everyone can see it. 

And because it’s mostly invisible, it remains addressed. 

We know how to address outright racism, but we don’t know how to address covert racism masked in innuendos and grinning faces. We have no real accountability measures for students and certainly not safety measures for Black professors. 

I think it’s time to have a conversation about racists in the classroom seats. I think it’s time for us to take action to make classrooms a safe place for Black professors. 

Yesterday’s events showed me what I already knew: racism is alive and well. And it’s bold. Although it hides behind fake names and black screens, it’s still there. It has traded its neighborhood improvement associations and secret societies for political office and college applications. 

creative process, Writing Habits

T is for Track

We have spent the month talking about strategies for how you can be a G.O.A.T. writer this year and meet your writing goals.

Our final letter T is for track. I believe that tracking your goals can be an effective way for growing your writing habit. I recently found this 100-day tracker on Mochi Things. With any tracker, you decide how to use it. Rather than recording daily, I’m using it track 100 days of writing daily and reading 30 pages.

I like trackers because they give you a clear sense of how you are doing. It’s quite easy to think you are doing more or less than you actually are. Tracking is also beneficial because it helps you see patterns. You can take that data and try to identify the root of your writing patterns.

For example, I know that around the middle and end of semesters my writing time decreases. That’s because I’m busy grading essays. It’s helpful for me to know when life evades my writing habit, so that I can be gracious with myself. But it’s also helpful so that I can strategize ways to maintain my habit, even if it looks differently because of life.

Maybe when midterm rolls around this semester, I’ll plan to give myself mini-breaks from grading and write for 15 minutes. Or maybe I will plan to get up a bit earlier. Or maybe I have no expectations for writing and I simply focus on grading. The tracker can give me some insight and direction into where and how I should focus my energy.

Here are some other trackers that you may find helpful. Austin Kleon has a free 30 day tracker aimed helping you practice more. I like this tracker because 30 days is a manageable amount of time. It doesn’t feel overwhelming. You can download it here.

I found this post it note habit tracker at Target. It was pricey, but since it was one of a kind, I bought it.

I hope these tips help you in growing your writing habit.

creative process, Writing Habits

A is for Accountability

Hey, writers!

We began this year talking about how you become the G.O.A.T. writer. We learned that the G is for gateway habit. What’s one habit you can adapt that will lead to other habits? O is for organize – creating a structure or plan for your writing time. 

Today, we’ll review A for Accountability. 

Much of the creative work for writing is done in solitude, and without an impending deadline, it can be easy to drift off course. Procrastination can set in, and before you know it, months have passed and you have not made progress. 

I have found a few strategies to overcome this. 

1. Get a writing buddy

This can be a friend or a fellow writer. Determine your goals. Then, create a system for how your buddy will hold you accountable, the frequency and format of check-ins. Go ahead and behind in some ‘consequences’ for when you don’t meet your goal. 

I recommend having midpoint check ins because they can steer you back in the right place if you get off track. They also can allow you to finish well. For example, let’s say you want to write three times a week. Your writing buddy checks in on Wednesday, and you haven’t written yet. But the check-in motivates you to write, so you write twice before the week ends. On the other hand, if your check-in came at the end of the week, you wouldn’t have a chance to try to recover your goal. You would have to start over the following week. 

2.  Take a writing class

Similar to writing groups, you can find these online or (post-COVID) in person. Some classes are free and others cost. Both can be beneficial. As a writer, you should be growing in your craft and a part of that is learning.

3. Join a writing group. 

I encourage you to find a couple of writing classes to take this year and schedule them. Prices range greatly, but select a class that is affordable for you. I recommend classes from the Loft Literacy Center. They also offer a year-long apprenticeship if you are looking for more one-on-one support. 

Perhaps, later this year, I will do a blog post on how to select a writing group. But for now, I’ll say this: joining a writing group that meets regularly can be beneficial in growing consistency. Some groups meet at public libraries, and some are online. Writing groups can offer motivation, encouragement and constructive feedback. If you join a group, be a good group member by giving as much as your take. 

So those are few strategies to keep you accountable with your writing goals.

Do you have any other strategies? I would love to hear them. Leave them in the comments below.

creative process, Writing Habits

O is for Organize

In a previous post, I talked about how finding your gateway habit is the first step in becoming a G.O.A.T. writer. Now, we are going to talk about the O: organize. 

Let’s be honest: the blank page or empty screen can be intimidating. As writers, we can spend more time thinking about writing or procrastinating and little time writing. Organizing your writing time can help you become a G.O.A.T. 

I want to offer 5 ways for organizing your writing time. Take what sparks and leaves what dulls.

Organize your writing time by studying a poet. 

Pick a poet’s whose work you want to learn from or who inspires you. Begin your writing time by reading and/or analyzing a few poems from the author. Use a few of their lines, titles or topics to jumpstart your writing. 

Organize your writing time by studying a form. 

Learn about the form and view examples of poems using the form. Then, write your own poems in that form. You can also revise a poem to be in the particular model your are studying. 

Organize your writing time around a project. 

I like to work on multiple projects at once. I have a binder for each project. The contents of the binder vary based on the project, but I like to have a few sections in each binder. Typically, I have poems or writing related to the project, research or images. You can read my blog post here on how I organize my projects.

Organize your writing time around a toolkit.

Sometimes I want writing to feel more like play and exploration. I have a box of photographs that I can select an image and write a poem inspired by the image. I also have a writer’s notebook of lines from other poets that I use as writing prompts. I keep a notebook of titles and words I want to include in a poem. When I sit down to write, I pick one of those tools to inspire my writing. 

Organize your writing time around a schedule. 

Create a list of what you plan to do each day. Now, when you write, you don’t have to figure what you will do during each session. Revision and research can be a part of your writing schedule. 

The goal of organizing your writing time is not meant to be rigid or restrictive. It simply to give you a starting place, so that you can do more writing. It’s meant to help you do more of what you love. 

Let me know how you plan to organize your writing time. Leave me a comment. I would love to hear from you.