This week, guest writer Katie Randall (Ph.D. candidate, CU Boulder) writes about her experience in the classroom as a scholar of color. Find her on Twitter at @Katie_Randall2.
Several semesters ago, one of my students asked me about the contemporary crisis of memorialization, sparked by the events in Charlottesville, VA, and he added—because I was black. Two minutes before, we had been discussing the parallel impact of ecological factors on the European population of the late Middle Ages and the effects of climate change on global populations today. I wanted to step outside of myself and scream. My sassy, drill sergeant facade cracked. Every student stared at me, expecting that my answer could conceivably be THE answer on race in America. A part of me, the empathetic, teaching part of me, was grateful that I had managed to cultivate a relationship with these students that made them comfortable enough to ask me about tough topics because they were genuinely curious about the world around them and wanted an informed, colored perspective. The other part of me, the colored woman trying to survive the rising racism and brutality under the current administration, steeled herself against yet another occasion of exhausting emotional labor.
I was teaching recitation sections for Western Civilization I, or as CU Boulder calls it: Greeks, Romans, Kings, and Crusaders. Recitation sections supplement large, lecture-style courses with 50-minute meetings once a week to discuss assigned readings and class assignments. Much to my surprise, I genuinely enjoyed the challenges that come with engaging students one-on-one, diving into primary sources with a general audience, and teaching undergraduates how historical analysis really works. However, the majority of my classroom anxiety stemmed from the fact that I am a biracial woman of color at a predominantly white institution, and for the first time, I was going to be in a position of scholarly authority—over a predominantly white audience. As someone who has essentially made a career out of being a student, awkward and painful classroom experiences dealing with race are nothing new. However, leading recitation meant I was going to experience the inverse of that equation—or so I thought.
The students were assigned Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015) and we were discussing how the human experience is fundamentally shaped by the era in which people live and the events that impact their worlds. To my delight, my students actually recognized that people’s lives in the ancient and medieval worlds were affected by political administrations, wars, and ecological events in the same way that their own lives are shaped by the 2016 election, prolonged U.S. engagement in the Middle East, and climate change. I was ecstatic—they got it! They finally grasped the importance of historical contextualization and the significance of history—I had succeeded! Then came the question about my thoughts on Charlottesville’s memorials because of the color of my skin. Not because I’m a graduate student studying history, not because we were discussing the impact of contemporary events on society, but because I am black, and apparently, I have the definitive response on being black in America.
Thinking on my feet, I tried to give my students the best answer I could think of. I don’t remember every word I said, as I was trying to piece something together, but I do remember desperately trying to get across that historical context and the evidence of experience are the most critical factors to creating an informed opinion and understanding the world around us. Those Confederate memorials in Charlottesville were erected in the 1920s, at the height of Jim Crow, a time when white people wanted to keep black people in their place. By celebrating the Confederacy, they thought they could threaten and dishearten us. I told my students that I am offended by these memorials because they are a celebration of systemic racism and the fundamental inequality that still plagues this country. I also explained that while white people can become scholars of race and study the discrimination that has shaped our institutions since European invaders first touched American shores, they will never have the experience of being a person of color in this country. That experience, the colored experience, is a fundamental and inherently valuable component to any productive discourse on race and inequality in the U.S.
Over the course of my academic career, I have become irritatingly intimate with the times when classmates and the occasional teacher turn to me as the resident expert whenever the topic of race in America comes to the forefront of the discussion. I’m used to being singled out as the token minority whenever classroom discussions migrate toward affirmative action, police brutality, or systemic racism. While these experiences have changed over the years, especially since 2016, my time in graduate school has shown me another dimension of the colored experience in the United States. White scholars of the African American experience explaining my history to me, being told “why race matters,” not having any African American faculty that I can look to for mentorship and guidance, being assigned readings that were produced by racist intellectuals or that promote a racist worldview—these are just some of the quotidian experiences of higher education that remind me how people of color in academia are consistently marginalized.
With these experiences in mind, I approached my first semester of teaching. And, at my particular institution, I was genuinely terrified for the moment when a privileged, white student would challenge my authority in the classroom. I imagined various scenarios: a grade that they thought was too harsh; speaking over me with an air of disregard; questioning my qualifications because of my skin color.
Graduate school, regardless of the discipline, is an incredibly difficult endeavor. And for some graduate students, particularly students of color, the rigors of the academy can be inherently more challenging than others. Academics frequently discuss the ongoing crises in higher education and how to address issues pertaining to pedagogy, the academic job market, student retention and graduation rates, and the incorporation of new methodologies and analyses. Very few of these concerns, particularly at my institution, address how to support scholars of color or how to break down and overcome the undue burden of emotional labor, systemic marginalization, and tokenism, or the micro-aggressions that dominate the halls of the ivory tower. So many ongoing conversations revolve around “decoding” or “uncovering” the demands of academic disciplines or actively illustrating the responsibilities and expectations of graduate life. But how can “The Academy” actually move forward if it is content leaving its minority members in the shadows and refusing to address the systemic issues at play?
On the first day of class, I passed out my recitation syllabus, where I state in the policies section:
Because this recitation will be based on discussion it is important that everyone exhibit a level of respect for their fellow students’ opinions and ideas that is appropriate for a college classroom. I have a zero tolerance policy for disrespect or any kind of discrimination in my recitation.
This was my first attempt to head off blatant shows of disrespect and students with serious attitude problems. And, while it was my first time teaching, I knew that if I didn’t go through the syllabus with my students, they weren’t going to read it, and my syllabus would join the layers of detritus in the bottom of their backpacks. So when we approached that section I stared out across the sea of fresh haircuts and new, expensive textbooks with the best drill sergeant look I could muster, and read it to them twice. Then I asked them if they had any questions before we moved onto the next section. While my particular classroom experience had more to do with my weekly preparation and a lot of luck, I like to think that my professional, do-not-try-me demeanor had some impact on my students’ behavior.
Later on, around the middle of the semester, we were discussing medieval constructions of race as we approached the topic of the crusades. While race is, and has always been, a social construction, in the Middle Ages, particularly during the high and late Middle Ages, that construction was largely informed by religion. Those in Christendom (Western Europe) generally constructed their identities, and their conceptions of others around which religion they practiced, whether it was Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. This kind of racial construction had a significant impact on crusader culture. For example, during the first crusade, crusaders literally took a detour to the Rhineland (modern Germany) to slaughter non-believers (Jews) in Christendom, before they continued on to the Holy Land to “liberate” Jerusalem and local Christians from their Muslim overlords. While this is a gross simplification of the crusades on my part, it captures the intellectual essence of my section meetings. As a scholar and educator of color, I seized this opportunity to show my students, using primary sources, how the concept of race is constructed, and how that construction varies wildly depending on the time and place in which it is created.
While I was slightly less articulate in the heat of the “Charlottesville” moment, I like to think that they understood the root of what I was trying to say as they nodded quietly and soberly. And, just like that, class was over—it was the end of my fifty-minute section, and it was the last meeting of the semester. My semester of teaching ended not with the Black Death or the dissolution of the Middle Ages, but with yet another instance of emotional labor.
I hope, by now, you have noticed the disjointed nature of my prose. This was intentional. I did not write this way to confuse, but rather to enlighten. This, rather emotionally-driven piece, is my best effort to mimic my experiences with the incoherent and break-neck demands of the emotional labor exacted upon me by my institution. Try to imagine the disjointed feelings you experienced while reading this piece, but instead, as your mindset when you walk into a meeting or classroom. Then, you can begin to understand my experience to some small degree.
My intention is to illuminate one woman’s experience as a person of color in academia, not dominate or disenfranchise the narratives of other people of color. I am not naïve enough to think that every scholar of color has the same experiences as myself, but I can tell you that our collective experiences parallel each other painfully. The academy has much work to do to remedy the unequal burdens of emotional labor laid upon scholars of color. Let’s just hope that we are not called upon to do the majority of the work, yet again.
 I’m sure other scholars of color can add to this list.