Young, Gifted, and Black: Facing Microaggressions as a Young College Professor

by Saaraa Bailey

White. Male. Middle-Aged.

Despite the year being 2015, this remains the prototype of professorship at most colleges and universities in the U.S. Those who exist outside this identity are often devalued in higher education and prone to a series of unpleasantries that many of us know as microaggressions.

These microaggressions are perhaps the height of mistreatment faced by the young black woman professor, issued by colleagues and students alike. Below are a list of the most common microaggressions lobbied at me.

1. I'm often mistaken for being a student.

While it may seem like a compliment and celebration of my youth, it’s not.
I smile and greet many of my colleagues, only to be issued a condescending half smile in return—if I receive acknowledged at all. When in the faculty conference room, the stinging glances my presence causes aligns more with a newly segregated restaurant of the late 1950’s than a present day community college.

When my status is revealed, every reaction is the same: a mixture of embarrassment and disbelief. Then of course, I am issued the response of, “I thought you were a student,” which is then accompanied by a smug laugh. This is not a compliment at all, as it suggests that a young black woman is more believable as student than instructor.

2. My students often don't show me the same respect they show other instructors.

In addition to being mistaken for a student, young black women instructors are often aligned with their students. In times of conflict I have found myself treated as an equal, and not an educator, of my students. Interestingly, this treatment only occurs under the leadership of white chairs. I believe the reasoning for this stems from the assumed accuracy of minority student commentary on minority professors. It is also an indirect means to question what these chairs already see as questionable employment of a young black woman.

3. I have to suffer condescending small talk from my colleagues.

As a young black woman instructor, much of the “small talk” I encounter is more like an informal interview, a checking of my credentials to see if I really deserve to be teaching. Very few colleagues are interested in my intellectual interests and desire to be an inspiring, effective instructor; rather, they are more interested in my ability to instruct.

When colleagues aren’t scratching their heads, pondering, “How does this young black woman have the same job as me?” I am constantly faced with queries to remind me of my blackness. On one occasion, I recall discussing my interest in teaching a short fiction course. My colleague then begins discussing “a new short story he just discovered entitled ‘Sonny’s Blues.’”

Now, I love James Baldwin. However, I know he only mentioned this because I’m black. While my blackness is something I am proud of, it should not be the basis of any and all encounters at a job where my colleagues and I have other things in common—like our students and shared job demands, for example.

4. People often assume I don't know what I'm doing. 

When I am not being confronted with conversations centered on what blacks are assumed to be interested in, I am given advice. As a newcomer in my field, advice is both nurturing and necessary. However, as a young black woman I find myself constantly being issued advice by my white male colleagues. I am never asked how my class is going, but instead given numerous answers to an unasked questions. I often feel that I am being spoken at and not spoken to in these conversations, which is both disheartening and condescending.

5. I have to deal with "Tell Mommy Syndrome" from students.

Perhaps the most annoying microaggression of all is being constantly reported. As a young black woman instructor, I am unfortunately seen as disposable. Students often assume I lack the job security and prestige to withstand criticism from above. So, they report every little thing, each tale seasoned with exaggeration, fallacy, and malice—all intended to contribute to the fall of the black professor.

6. I'm still susceptible to black woman stereotypes.

The fall of the black professor is also prompted through evaluations. In the evaluation of black female professors by non-blacks, young black women are often stereotyped. For example, a black woman who is overtly dedicated to her craft will be seen as “too serious,” ignoring that most professors are indeed serious. A passionate black female professor is often labeled as “angry,” and a black professor who runs an organized class is also pegged as “taking herself too seriously” or “being difficult.” Despite holding a position of merit and great responsibility, black professors are still expected to stay within the lines of inferiority to their white counterparts.

My experiences as an instructor have been instrumental in revealing the anxiety society feels, caused by the success of an accomplished, young black woman. Society is much more complacent with my 26-year-old brown face being a cast member of Love and Hip-Hop, than as an educator of college students. While the temptation to become resentful in the face of such blatant racism and sexism is certainly present, I strive to allow my experiences to make me a better educator, not a bitter one.

Photo: Shutterstock

Saaraa Bailey is a regular contributor at For Harriet.

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