Teaching Innovations

Taking a Step toward Trust

Brenda Stevenson, September 1993

Vince Nobile's article suggests many important issues which scholars will continue to confront in the increasingly multicultural arena of the American academy. It is quite reasonable to predict, for example, that as racial and ethnic minority students continue to gain political savvy and acquire a voice in the shaping of university curriculum and faculty, they will demand that professors and administrators attest to their commitment to rendering an honest and balanced perspective of the experiences of the "other" in American society. Those in the past who did so assured the birth of ethnic studies programs across the country, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude. Today's black students' continued vigilance should help to assure the survival of ethnic studies during this era of financial crisis and retrenchment. Certainly one hopes that they will continue to "agitate" for "purer" intellectual purposes as well; not perhaps as the single driving force in their intellectual development, but as part of a healthy inquisitiveness about the social construction of knowledge that serves any student well. The university, after all, is a place where young people learn, often most effectively, through questioning and challenging professional scholars about the information they impart, its origins, and how various interpretations are filtered through one's individual and group identity. Students' questions become even more challenging when they realize what is at stake—socially, politically, economically, psychologically, and culturally—when one teaches or takes a course about the experiences of African Americans in a society where inegalitarian stratification still falls precipitously along racial lines.

Who can blame them? It is, after all, largely because of this national history of racial oppression and the institutionalized distortion and marginalization of African American history that many black students have continued to question their professors' conceptualizations and representations of their race's history. Nobile astutely concludes, for example, that much of the hostility he encountered was a result of his students' inability to trust him to teach a course that would in many ways morally indict his race as an agent of black exploitation and persecution. His acknowledgement of this fundamental mistrust of some black students and the consequent failure of communication between him and them is key to addressing the problems we face. As teachers of African American history, we must be aware of how deeply wronged black students feel about the kind of Eurocentric deceit that has shaped much of "traditional" scholarship. Many African American students rightfully feel intellectually betrayed and manipulated in college classrooms and, consequently, are passionate about putting an end to the racist construction of black history.

It is probably true that the combination of Nobile's race, gender, and class (denoted by his position at the university) especially caused his students to question his competence, or even his right to teach African American history. Historically, a middle-class, European-American man would not be the most reliable source of unbiased opinion on black America; and African American students act out of this reality. Yet, it is not only white male professors who are under scrutiny, but any scholars, regardless of race, who, by virtue of their status as "university professors," are symbols of an academic tradition which historically has denied the intellectual capability, cultural contributions, and general humanity of African Americans. Many black professors, for example, also confront the same kinds of questions and threats of rejection that Professor Nobile describes, perhaps even more. Oftentimes students label us as "sell outs" for no better reason than we happen to be faculty and, therefore, part of an intellectual tradition they believe is racist; we are dismissed with the rest of it. Suddenly years of answering the call to be inspirational role models (to say nothing of the sacrifices incumbent in the preparation to do so) are undermined by accusations of assimilation and betrayal which are tantamount to labelling a black professor "worthless" in the eyes of many black students.

What is left for minority faculty when this occurs? Because many university administrators and department chairpersons have responded to their black students' curriculum and faculty concerns by seeking to fill ethnic studies positions with representatives of these groups, the minority students' repudiation of minority faculty can be even more devastating to those scholars' self-esteem and careers. Professor Nobile at least can retreat to teaching more "mainstream" courses in his department. Black faculty often do not have this kind of option since our employers principally value our contributions to ethnic studies courses and black students. The university rarely offers black faculty the other kinds of sanctuary Professor Nobile received once we lose our "constituency."

Instead of demanding more black faculty, some African American students have chosen self-education as their solution. More and more, as Vince Nobile contends, are turning to alternate intellectual interpretations of world and national history, such as Afrocentricity, in order to address their deep yearning to know the "truth" about their ancestral past. Many scholars have responded harshly to these new directions of inquiry, quickly denouncing "popular versions" of this discourse as ridiculous. Yet, African American students would argue that it is no more inane for them to begin to believe that "everyone from Jesus and the Madonna to Beethoven was black" than for the university to allow European-American students to continue to believe that "everyone" of importance in the history of humankind was white. In many respects, the basic appeal of a popularized and commodified Afrocentric ethos is that black students regard it as a culturally prudent and survivalist counter to the racist scholarship perpetuated at our universities and predominant in our society.

What, then, can we realistically do to prevent the kind of racial and cultural chauvinism prevalent among the "majority" from infecting the social ideologies of minorities? First, we must realize that it is our duty to nurture a kind of general respect for cultural difference, diversity, and change in our scholarship, inspiring students to learn as much as possible about the historical experiences of a variety of people. Secondly, we must make it clear through our own work and example that, while racial and/or ethnic pride is important to one's developing sense of identity and self-esteem, ethnocentrism is a profoundly anti-intellectual and inhumane approach to scholarship. But more specific to Vince Nobile's dilemma, we almost must be willing to reevaluate some of the "standard" interpretations and approaches to African American history in order to counter (or at least inform students about) whatever biases they may reflect. In so doing, we may begin to win back some of that very vocal, oppositional five percent (and their silent constituents) of students enrolled in black history courses whose institutions compel them to reject anyone who speaks to them in "traditional" scholarly terms about their "nontraditional" history.

Clearly, we have a difficult task before us even if we act genuinely and consistently. The national racial climate has become frighteningly more tense during the last decade and confounds our problems. The symbol of the university as an ivory tower where students are free to learn and grow intellectually without the pressures of the outside world rings empty in light of the galling reality of customary segregation in campus classrooms, dining facilities, study areas, and dormitories; of articles, editorials, and letters in student newspapers whose authors routinely attack racial affirmative action mandates; of white fraternity customs that are played out by hanging blacks in effigy or sponsoring "Nigger Night" as part of a membership test for their pledges; and of campus police who routinely question and detain disproportionately large numbers of black male faculty and students merely for being on campus. All of these devastating scenarios, and many more, are played out over and over again on college campuses, presenting a hostile, sociopolitical environment for any black person there. When one considers how these truths about university life combine with the other "losses" black students now face—in enrollments and success rates; in numbers of black PhDs and their representation in classrooms; and in the impact of shrinking budgets on ethnic studies in general—one can begin to understand their alienation and frustration, and the enormous task at hand for faculty.

To their immense credit, many black students diligently try to salvage something valuable out of these devastating experiences. It is out of a desire not to feel completely alienated, for example, that African American students assume a proprietary stance when it comes to African American history and related courses. Black studies is one of the few "places" on campus where black students experience some sense of belonging; where they feel as if their presence as well as their intellectual perspective is respected and appreciated. It is unfortunate that university administrators, faculty, and the majority of the student body have not made black students feel more welcomed or helped them to believe they have a right to all of the university. Because this has not happened in the past, it is now important that all of us, not just those who teach black history or similar courses, be sensitive to the kind of weighty burden that racism, oftentimes so entrenched in university life that it is difficult for the majority to even identify, places on African American students; and to how this burden colors their relationship with all arenas of their campus life—socially, politically, and intellectually. Gaining this kind of sensitivity, and acting on it, would be an enormous step. The academy has done precious little to earn the trust of students of color in the past—we must be willing to take great measures to gain their faith; measures that undoubtedly will enliven and innovate the academy and academic life for everyone.

—Brenda Stevenson is an assistant professor of history at University of California, Los Angeles.