Teaching while black



“There will never be a nigger SAE … You can hang him from a tree, but they will never sign with me … There will never be a nigger SAE.”

That vile chant has reverberated in my head throughout these last couple of days. And as it has, my thoughts have drifted to the students, particularly the minority students, who attend the University of Oklahoma, who have sat in classes with the young men who so proudly and gleefully chanted those disgusting words. I doubt that this type of ignorance, this racism, has been limited to fraternity songs.

I am an African-American female law professor at the University of Alabama, which is actually where Sigma Alpha Epsilon was founded, on March 9, 1856. My employer is also no stranger to racism and exclusionary practices in its Greek organizations — though it has recently taken some modest steps forward. So much racism was marinated and birthed in this very state that perhaps it will never escape the heavy weight and judgment of its history. So as the nation commemorated a defining moment in our nation’s history that we could simply refer to as “Selma,” young fraternity boys in Oklahoma (celebrating their organization’s founding in Alabama) transported us back in time to remind us why those brave men and women, black and white, risked their lives on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that Sunday in 1965 for a better, freer, kinder America.

My thoughts have also been, in large part, on the minority professors at the University of Oklahoma, at the University of Alabama, and all over this nation. Since the day that minority professors, particularly African-American professors, began teaching at universities across the country, we have had to deal with blatant and covert racism not only from some of our colleagues but also from some of our students. Watching those Oklahoma students happily spew such hatred made me feel for the professors who may have had to teach them, as well as the other students who may have had to sit next to or around them in class.

Though a majority of my students (of various races and backgrounds) have been wonderful, there has been a difficult minority of students who clearly have preconceived notions about African-Americans and have probably not had much experience with a minority authority figure. And they have not been shy about letting me (or others) know that in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

I recall at my previous institution, Washington and Lee, having two white admitted students come to my office after having sat in on my class (they were trying to decide where to attend law school). They were very upset because their law-school “tour guide” (a white female second- or third-year law student) had told them on the way to my class that I was “just a black visiting professor” and that they needn’t pay me much attention. I was not a visiting professor but a member of the permanent faculty, and the student tour guide had no basis whatsoever for the assumption that I was a visitor. The message was clear, however, that in her mind I did not belong. The admitted students were appalled (probably a little more than I was).

There have been other, less overt (but just as demeaning) manifestations of students’ racial bias directed at me and other minority colleagues during my time in the academy.

My experience is consistent with the experiences of many minority professors across the country. For example, the 2012 book Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia chronicled the harsh treatment of minority women like me at our nation’s places of “higher learning.”

Often, and unfortunately, university administrations show no concern about the abuses that professors of color are subjected to at the hands of some students (and some colleagues), and many professors (particularly those without tenure) do not speak out for fear of losing their jobs. University administrators seem to care about racial abuses on the campus only when the national news media finds out about incidents – often where the culprits have been caught, and there is indisputable and direct evidence of their reprehensible behavior.

If university administrators would make a real commitment to engage faculty members, particularly minority faculty members, on issues of diversity and inclusion, many problems like what we saw in that shameful video could be addressed long before they become a national incident. That engagement needs to include meaningful discussions of the experiences of faculty of color in the classroom and the implementation of concrete solutions. Students who continually get away with abusing their professors and fellow students will only be emboldened to escalate their behavior – those are the types of students likely to proudly and loudly chant things like “There will never be a nigger SAE.”

Author Bio: Montré D. Carodine is a professor of law at the University of Alabama School of Law. She teaches and writes in the areas of evidence as well as race and the law.