Problem: A matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome – Oxford
In “Souls of Black Folk”, W.E.B. DuBois asserts that there was one question that most white people hesitated to ask: “how does it feel to be a problem?” He referred to it as a “strange experience” and went on to proclaim that “the problem of the twentieth century” was “the problem of the color line.” Unfortunately, in the twenty-first century, the color line problem remains but its manifestations are nuanced with mass incarceration, police brutality, and lack of access to quality and higher education serving as contributing factors to the disenfranchisement of Black America. Furthermore, it’s complicated by the myth that we live in an age of colorblindness.
If you have logged on to social media sites, tuned in to new channels, or picked up a newspaper over the last couple of months then you are aware of the uprising that surfaced in Baltimore, Maryland. These demonstrations were not solely but partly in response to the unwarranted death of one Freddie Gray – another unarmed Black person who died while in police custody. Everyone has problems as that is a part of the human experience, but to be a problem is an entirely different kind of burden. The Black professional is not exempt from this struggle. In wanting to expand the question, I posed a more contemporary inquiry for the Student Affairs Collective: what does it look, sound, and feel like to be a problem?
In doing so, I reached out to a few colleagues to tackle these questions. Below are excerpts of their responses followed by my analysis.
J. Spenser Darden, Student Support Services Teacher/Counselor, Glenville State College
“Being a problem – a state of inconvenience, can be seen daily…with news outlets reporting crime, poverty, and a lack of quality education as conditions of “Blackness”. It is seen in President Obama being called an “affirmative action president” and portrayed as a monkey. Moving closer to campus, the problems are named in racist chants, graffiti, and blamed for having “strange” names. As a man of color, attending and working at PWIs in a rural state, these issues manifest themselves in the ways students speak and with whom they chose (or choose not) to interact. So to look like a problem means being viewed with hate; seen as dangerous, scary, and untrustworthy. And yet completely counterintuitively, it means befriending the oppressive system. It also means working with staff and students who perpetuate the stereotypes and watching human and civil rights violations repeatedly responded to with silence. What does it look like to be a problem? It looks like me.”
Arian L. Bryant, Associate Director of Residence Life, University of Central Florida
“When I think of what it sounds like to be a problem; I think of music that’s off-key. Good music is universal; it speaks to our souls. It is analogous to listening to a violinist audition for an orchestra. Regardless of genuine desire and good intent, the violinist is incapable of hitting and holding the proper tune. Consequently, the sound produced not only fails to do the sheet music justice but also causes both a physical discomfort and spiritual disconnect. Perhaps the violinist has difficulty reading sheet music or maybe the violin is flawed. There are many engaged in the discourse of the state of Black men in America that are tone deaf – offering the same victim blaming explanations wrapped in new rhetoric ignoring the overwhelming data that suggests otherwise…their impact is undeniable. In spite of the grimaces from the audience, they play on.”
Bulaong M. Ramiz, Assistant Director of Student Activities and Leadership Development, Wesleyan University
“I struggle writing about what it feels like to be a problem…This question is one that does not linger in my head but rather in depths of my soul. The feeling is indescribable, but I will try. It’s like the feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you’re going down a big roller coaster drop, like a hundred horses trampling on your chest. It’s the not knowing if this predominantly white room, restaurant, movie theater, meeting, or university I’m in is also occupied by someone who hates my being. Not knowing if the police sirens behind me might result in my rape or death for no other reason than my black womanness…That my little brother or even my future children, the beautiful black babies I might have, with the glowing mark of their ancestors will be unwanted, unloved by the world…I am vulnerable – I share my feelings and hope that someone will finally hear me—us. I beg you not to look for statistics and numbers, a theory or policy to prove what we feel. You cannot quantify our reality. You cannot theorize our fear. We all have problems but to BE a problem – that is immeasurable.”
“But we have known nothing else”
I take issue with why Freddie Gray was murdered. There is something insidious about broken windows (theory) when it leads to broken spines. Moreover, I find it problematic that for most of my life, I’ve had to wrestle with the possibility that it could happen to me, a colleague and/or a student whom I work and interact with daily. If anything is evidenced by the responses above, it’s that the sting of racism—grounded in white supremacy is felt by Black Americans whether they reside in the streets of Baltimore or the prestigious halls of Harvard. To be a problem is suffocating. It feels personal. It feels political – it’s both and that to me looks, sounds, and feels like the real problem. Naming the culprit is one step, dismantling it is another. It should come as no surprise that our colleagues struggled with sharing their stories for what is certain to be a predominantly white audience. The purpose of this post then was to provide a counter narrative rejecting the notion that being educated absolves us from racial discrimination. It doesn’t and hasn’t. Needless to say, we’d prefer a different type of experience – one in which fighting for our very existence is not a part of the deal.