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Race on Campus

Engage in higher ed’s conversations about racial equity and inclusion. Delivered on Tuesdays.

January 26, 2021

From: Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez

Subject: Race on Campus: The Mental Burden of Minority Professors

Welcome to Race on Campus. This week’s newsletter is the second installment on mental health, this time tackling some of the challenges that minority faculty members face. Here’s a link to the first installment.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

Constant Mental Calculus

Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history at Georgetown University, is typically the only Black scholar in the room. She often finds herself in the “delicate position” of presenting perspectives that have been ignored — especially those of minority groups.

She feels a responsibility, she says, and a desire to use what power she has to advocate for others. But that means she’s engaged in a constant mental calculus to pick her battles and figure out which of several urgent equity issues most need her attention.

When faculty members feel singled out for their racial identity, the loneliness, added stress, and even impostor syndrome can take a toll. Sometimes those feelings and other factors, like an inability to create meaningful change or frustration over being the “token” minority in the department, can prompt them to leave their institutions.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the fall-2018 semester, people of color made up less than a quarter of full-time professors. After the country’s racial reckoning began last summer, institutions such as the University of Texas at Austin, Colgate University, and Columbia University pledged or renewed promises to hire more faculty members from minority groups.

But some colleges that have sought for years to diversify their faculties are still less diverse than the students they enroll, leaving the few faculty of color with an invisible burden.

One of a Few

In graduate school at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Katrina Phillips was one of a “bunch” of Native students, but now, as an assistant professor of history at Macalester College, she’s one of a few. People who identify as Alaska Native or American Indian make up less than one-half of 1 percent (0.4 percent) of professors nationally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“There are so few of us by the time you get to this level,” Phillips says, “and a lot of the times it just feels really lonely.”

Phillips teaches courses on the American West and Native history, connecting the material with present-day issues. Every semester without fail, the topic of Native American mascots for sports teams comes up in one of her classes, she says. For Phillips, this isn’t a simple class discussion.

“When you literally feel like you are representing everybody, like representing your people, there’s so much weight that comes with that,” she says. “There’s so much weight and so much pressure.”

Faculty members of color are more likely than are white professors to feel as if they must work harder than their colleagues to be seen as a legitimate scholar, according to a 2019 University of California at Los Angeles survey. The difference between Black and white faculty members’ perceptions is particularly stark; about 72.2 percent of Black faculty members surveyed said they needed to work harder to gain respect, compared with 46.8 percent of white faculty members who felt the same.

Georgetown’s Chatelain says college leaders often lean on minority professors to meet with students who are protesting or concerned about racial inequity. The same faculty members are usually asked to serve on diversity committees and task forces.

“It creates a sense that faculty of color are serving students in a deeper way and also having to represent the institution in a deeper way while still being required to meet the obligations of teaching and research and service,” Chatelain says. “These unfair expectations lead to a lot of faculty of color being unable to craft careers that are meaningful and sustainable.”

How to Help

Racial tensions won’t go away just by hiring more faculty members of color, Chatelain says. Colleges should evaluate if and how their departments can grow from diversifying the faculty, or whether the departments have problems that run deeper than representation.

Once diverse scholars are hired, Chatelain says, colleges must retain them. Leaders should recognize that requests for the scholars’ help with diversity initiatives and student mentorship take away time from their research and teaching.

Institutions can also relieve some of the burden of service work, Phillips says, by taking on such administrative tasks as organizing a dedicated time and space for minority faculty and staff members to meet.

Phillips occasionally meets with colleagues of color, and the onus of organizing schedules, booking a conference room, or setting up the Zoom link always falls on one of them. It’s one of the tiny tolls that add up.

It’s also important, Chatelain says, for scholars of color to take care of themselves.

Chatelain says she attained her academic position, in part, through perfectionism and overwork. Those traits proved helpful for her, but they can also be an Achilles’ heel for a minority scholar who is balancing so much.

“These sometimes-painful aspects of our personality can make it confusing when we need time to step back and take care of our mental and emotional health,” she says.

“For every person who takes really seriously their academic work, their mentorship with students of color, and their advocacy, as you grow older, you have to find and incorporate practices that allow you to express your emotions and allow you to rest and allow you to seek help.”

Read Up

  • In last week’s newsletter, I told you to watch out for Amanda Gorman, the inaugural poet. In this interview, Gorman talks about her career-defining moment. (Vogue)
  • The nation cannot easily fix its 400-year-old race-based hierarchy. This month’s attack on the U.S. Capitol illustrates that, says the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson on Kara Swisher’s podcast Sway. (The New York Times)
  • When racism prevails, everyone loses, writes Heather McGhee in her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. Anand Giridharadas, editor at large of Time magazine, interviews McGhee about this idea. (The.Ink newsletter)
  • Last summer colleges in Texas pledged to remove racist symbols on their campuses. Now some students of color say that their concerns have been ignored or maligned by the bureaucracy. (The Texas Tribune)

—Fernanda

Fernanda is newsletter product manager at The Chronicle. She is the voice behind Chronicle newsletters like the Weekly Briefing, Five Weeks to a Better Semester, and more. She also writes about what Chronicle readers are thinking. Send her an email at fernanda@chronicle.com.