No question, being a black man is demanding
The fire’s in my eyes and the flames need fanning
-“K.O.S. Determination”, Black Star, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star (1998)
The Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, and Eric Garner incidents seemed to happen one after the other. Even calling them “instances” does injustice to how they impacted us as a society. Undoubtedly, these were also teaching moments that could be used to engage our students in candid conversations about issues in diversity in our society, but at the time I was hurting, and had little to no motivation to engage with others about my “otherness.” I had a hard time going to the office the next day. More so, selfishly, because my otherness felt more exposed than ever.
I was one of a few Black men on a predominantly Mexican-American dominated campus, where, based on the account of the students themselves through informal conversation, had little interaction with “black people, especially in authority” before coming to the school. Almost all residence life departments espouse the virtue of diversity and multicultural affairs as an important part of the educational experience of its students, but it was difficult to take that seriously when there was a very clear dominant group that, I, as a student affairs professional and leader on campus, wasn’t part of and now had to engage. It was my responsibility as a residence hall director to have these conversations with these students, but as a black man, I felt little support dealing with these tragedies personally. Purely from anecdotal evidence, African-Americans are an underrepresented population in student affairs. Examining this point is beyond the scope of this article; however, I encourage whoever is interested to read the article – “Engaging, Retaining, and Advancing African Americans in Student Affairs Administration: An Analysis of Employment Status,” by Jerlando F. L. Jackson, which is available for free online.
While dealing with a national debate, you can’t expect the thoughts and views of college students to be fully formed to the extent of some who are five and ten years their senior. Though age doesn’t always necessarily come with wisdom and perspective, the conversations I was hearing were a bit skewed in their perspective in their understanding of a “black perspective.” How could they, and thus, how could I, fault them for that? When their social, academic and professional groups consisted of, for the most part, mono-cultural and mono-theological views all reassuring one another, the result was predictable. Intellectually I knew this, as anyone else who encounters such a situation, but when something , indirectly, attacks your soul and one of the defining characteristics of who you are, it is a great struggle coping and addressing it purely intellectually. It enhances my admiration of those who faced greater opposition than me in the past for their otherness (be it due to race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity) with great outer strength, while warring on the inside (hence the quote at the beginning of this article). This does not refer simply to the civil rights movement and the days of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, but even those one generation older than me, who have probably felt what I have felt for decades.
All this leads to the central question: what do we do about it? For the time being, it’s crucial that black SAPros develop a support system as early as possible in their profession. It can be as large or small as you make it, but whether it’s in the form of other SAPros, faculty, or staff on campus, having that network can reduce the mental load of walking around as the clear other, day in and day out. If you can’t find them on campus, find them in the surrounding community. If you can’t find them in the surrounding community, find them online at other schools and correspond through email and social media. While your otherness is a tough burden to carry at times, it doesn’t have to be one that you share alone. We espouse that in our students. The least we can do is take our own advice.