Traveling as a Professor

Here I sit in Denver, Colorado. Tomorrow, I go home and then to New York City for a meeting the next day. After that, I fly to South Africa for a few weeks. I travel a lot. I’m not complaining. I love travel and being a professor. But, today, as I sat next to a woman on the plane, I thought about all of the crazy things that people have said to me while I’m traveling for work. Here’s how the scenario typically unfolds:

I sit down and get settled. The plane sits on the runway for a long time as all planes do these days. Although I travel constantly, I am terribly afraid. The only way I can get through my fear is to work non-stop once the plane takes off. It’s the time in between sitting down and taking off that is always fascinating. So, as I was saying …I sit down and usually smile at the person next to me. I can’t help it, I’m friendly. We exchange pleasantries. My seat companion then asks if I live in Philadelphia. I say yes. He or she inquires about what I do there. I say I’m a professor at Penn. The next question is what starts the craziness. “Oh, really, what do you teach?” I then tell my seat companion that I do research and teaching related to African Americans in higher education. 

As I am a White woman, my seat companion is typically surprised. He or she will ask me “how on earth” I got interested in the topic. I always answer and smile. Sometimes the result is a great conversation in which the two of us exchange information and we both learn something new. I’m an extrovert so engaging in the pre-flight conversation is something I like (plus it takes my mind off the idea of flying through the air in a tin can). But the situation isn’t always pleasant.

On several occasions, I’ve had people ask me highly uninformed or racist things. I’ve been asked the following questions:

“Why is having a Black president empowering to young Black people?” [I proceeded with a short lecture on the impact of same-race role models. In this case, I made sure to ask the White male who his role models were—they were all White men.]

What’s a Black college? Why do we have those? [As I rattled off nearly 20, including some of the most well known, the person didn't recognize any of them. At that point, I gave a quick history lesson, making sure my seat companion was aware that Blacks were summarily excluded from higher education for centuries. I also talked about the contributions that Black colleges have made to society, including being responsible for the education of the Black middle class as we know it.] 

Why are African American college graduation rates lower than that of Whites? [As African American college graduation rates are lower than that of Whites, I talked about the racial and socio-economic barriers to achievement. However, I also tried to point out positive examples of high achieving African Americans. I do this to counter the negative views and assumptions about Blacks on the part of the general public.]

Why are young Black men more promiscuous than other men? [I had to settle myself for a minute. After telling the man that his comment was highly offensive to me and racist, I decided the best thing to do was to stop talking to him and instead to write him a letter. I handed him the letter as I got off the plane. You never know if you can change someone's mind or educate them just a bit. I tried.]

These are just a sampling of the questions I am asked. Sometimes when I share these interactions, especially the negative ones, with friends, they say, “Why don’t you just sit in silence?” I could do that, but if I did, I wouldn’t get as many ideas for research (and this blog) nor would I have the opportunity to perhaps, maybe, change someone’s mind or educate them. I have always believed that education takes place everywhere. I know I learn immensely from talking to others and having them challenge my ideas. As I get ready to fly to South Africa, I wonder what’s in store for me….or the person next to me on the plane! It’s a long flight.

My apologies if you have to sit next to me on a plane!


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