Image credit: White Lies, Subtleties, Micro-Aggressions, and Other Choking Hazards by Dr. Fahamu Pecou (2017), Acrylic on Canvas.
Presidents from underrepresented groups, often “the first” president from a particular category, are subject to continuing scrutiny arising from white male normed expectations. Such biases act as impediments to achieving legitimacy.
—Rita Bornstein, Legitimacy in the Academic Presidency: From Entrance to Exit
I am a busy man—but being Black, whether as an assistant professor or as the leader of an urban research university, has always added invisible work to an already full plate.
As the contributions in this special issue of Public Seminar make abundantly and often painfully clear, teaching as a person of color in the predominately white spaces of higher education presents challenges far beyond the demands of the actual job. Having been a faculty member at several institutions, I’ve experienced many of the obstacles and pleasures the writers here share with us. And as the first African American President of The New School, I can add some insights about the challenge of leading while Black too.
You see, this isn’t my first time being a historic “first.” I am a perpetual first-timer: the first in my family to attend college, the first in graduate school, the first to earn a PhD. I progressed rather precociously in the early years of my career, coming up for tenure a year before the tenure clock demanded because I had received a tenured offer at a peer university. I became head of the African American Studies department at the University of Illinois at Chicago at the age of 33—the same year that I received tenure there.
Six years later, I assumed my first deanship, becoming Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Again, I was the first African American (and certainly the first openly gay African American) to hold that position. In 2010, I was the first African American to be Dean of The Graduate School at Northwestern and only the second African American dean of any school or college in that institution’s history. In 2017, I was the first openly gay African American Provost at Emory, and only the second Black person to hold that position.
And I am now the first African American to lead The New School.
As the epigraph from Bornstein acknowledges, being the “first” from any group to assume a leadership position involves certain challenges, which many of these essays reflect: making decisions and charting a path without the benefit of assumed legitimacy. As Franklin Raines, the first Black CEO of a Fortune 500 Company, put it in Ebony in 2001, “Any time you’re a ‘first’ in one of these highly visible jobs, there’s always some pressure to make sure that you don’t do something that would create an excuse for people not to choose a second or a third or a fourth.”
Within the academy, the dynamic is not only unchanged, but heightened because of a special disconnect: long-term public prejudices about learning, education, and race. As Nell Irvin Painter noted at The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2000, “the widespread American assumption that black people are not intellectual affects everyone in higher education.” The loss of talent that accompanies this assumption, in other words, diminishes all of us, not just Black people. Indeed, the sad truth is that many of the slights, insults, and aggressions experienced by the dedicated teachers collected here (I don’t think of the casual ugliness which many of us navigate as “micro-aggressions”) are duplicated within higher education’s administrative spaces.
Seemingly mundane, daily decisions are illustrative of this invisible minefield. Several of the contributors speak of the importance of dress and personal presentation. In the early days of my teaching career, I too felt the need to “dress up” for class. As a younger person and an African American heading off to class, my office, or a routine campus errand, I tried to fend off the awkward moments of misidentification that can happen when you don’t “look like a professor” with style. As one example, for most of my career I studiously avoided carrying a backpack, lest I be mistaken for a student.
Yet no matter how hard I tried, it didn’t work. Many misidentifications later, I understood that how I dressed really didn’t make the difference I imagined it might. The first thing white people saw when they encountered me was that I was Black. Later in my career, when I was a Dean, I entered a room with my Associate Dean (a middle-aged white man) and the person we were meeting immediately shook the hand of my colleague. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dean McBride,” he said. Pointing to me my colleague affably replied, “No, he’s the Dean. I’m his associate.”
Other contributors to this special issue speak of the importance of balancing the demands on your time when called upon—endlessly—to serve. Such work is taxing for any faculty member, but for those who are “teaching while Black” such “service” can often be rounding out the diversity on a committee because there are so few faculty of color at the institution.
Hiring committees are also especially fraught spaces where Black leaders experience first-hand the mistaken notion that, in contrast to white colleagues, faculty of color are “overpaid.” Once when I was being recruited by another university to a distinguished endowed chair, a representative from the dean’s office at my home institution who was handling the negotiations there said to me (referring to an offer that they were being asked to match), “You know, Dwight, some people are asking: why does he need all of this now? It’s still so early in your career.”
To which I replied, “I need it because someone else is offering it.”
So even when you do all the things you are supposed to do and meet all the criteria that are the shared definitions of success in a university, it’s no guarantee that people won’t look askance when you ask for what you’ve earned. As I wrote in 2007 in the Journal of Black Studies: “Given the amount of ‘diversity work’ that faculty of color are called on to do—both that which is institutionally sanctioned and that which goes beyond what is—the truth of the matter is that no institution could afford to pay most of us what we are actually worth.”
Given academia’s name in the street as progressive hotbeds for radical thought, one might expect that “teaching while Black” would be less fraught. It’s commonplace to refer to the academy as somehow uniquely cordoned off from the rest of the world and the racial implications of our lives in America. We hear it in the phrase the “ivory tower,” and in the flagrantly false notion that students will get a better education in “the real world” where they will do “real work.”
But the work we do here in higher education is, I assure you, quite real, and these spaces are impacted in very real ways by the prejudices of our society. It follows, then, that teaching while Black is little different in America than living while Black.
Leading while Black, is different, then, not in kind but in degree. It is, in other words, a more acute, more severe serving of what has come before. As the litany of disrespect and the trail of obstruction that marked the Obama presidency demonstrates—not to mention the racial backlash that propelled Donald Trump into the presidency—even if you’re duly elected to the most powerful position in the world, you do not escape U.S. society’s preoccupations with race. Nor do you get to act outside the clear institutional and ideological boundaries of the office.
For a more contemporary example, we can see the disgraceful spectacle of the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson. An accomplished jurist by any measure, whose accolades top those of any other member of the Court, Judge Jackson was nonetheless berated in a week-long parade of grandstanding by Senate Republicans. Lest anyone doubt that race was a factor in these charades, it takes little acumen to see beyond the QAnon-inspired fixation on sex offender sentencing to see this line of “questions” for what it was: a bad-faith attempt to portray Jackson as “soft on crime,” a well-worn rhetorical dog whistle employed since the 1960s to trade on stereotypes of Blackness and criminality.
There are no contexts in which Black leaders are not always and already marked by their race. Whatever else the pressures and rewards of a university presidency may be, for a Black president these also entail a knowledge of and responsibility for the politics of racial representation. Successful Black leaders are not those who are blind or dumb to the challenges of Black leadership, or who simply ignore them. They are people who are open-eyed in their recognition of these unique challenges. They understand that racism must be negotiated as part of the job if there is to be any reasonable expectation of success.
The fact of a Black leader’s Blackness is always as present for those observing as it is for those of us being observed. Both fill you with self-doubt, make you feel responsible for representing your race at all times, make you feel you must outperform your white peers to receive even a portion of the recognition they receive, make you feel you must do nothing to fit easily into any ready-made stereotype waiting for you (i.e., “the angry Black man”), make you responsible for managing the frailty of white colleagues when they come to you because they don’t feel they know enough to speak to issues of inclusion and equity in the institution, and so on. It is a next level of exhausting!
And it’s all on top of doing the job we have actually been hired to do as faculty or university leader. It has been referred to as the “Black tax”: we all pay it one way or another. Managing those politics in any context as a Black leader can at times not only feel like an albatross but can also create superhuman expectations which few real live leaders can reasonably live up to.
Yet, this is not only a lament. Progress, real and measurable, is surely being made. Oftentimes, as more than a few of the contributors in this special issue point out, it is due to the incredible mentors that so selflessly steward the next generation of Black faculty, teachers, and leaders. I have no doubt that my own success has surely had something to do with ambition. But a brief roll call of my Black advisors and mentors—Al Raboteau, Toni Morrison, Nell Painter, Arnold Rampersad, Cornel West, Ruth Simmons, Valerie Smith, Howard Taylor, Wahneema Lubiano—demonstrates that my successes have a great deal more to do with these titans of the life of the mind. They led the way and allowed me to glimpse and visualize the real possibilities of Black intellectual life and leadership.
I hope to lead others. And they will lead others.
To be one of the few openly gay African American presidents of a college or university represents a big crack in the glass ceiling of higher education leadership. At the same time, my excitement about this role, in truth, is occasionally tempered by the unique challenges of leading while Black. At some level the least of these challenges is the near-herculean task of managing and stewarding the future of The New School, one of the premiere progressive universities in our nation—a role I began during a once in a millennia pandemic, no less! For most, this alone would provide a lifetime’s worth of demanding professional stimulation.
But I cannot be unmindful as well of the watchful gaze not only of new colleagues, alumni, friends, the partners, and publics of The New School, but also of Black, LGBTQ, and Black LGBTQ people as I work to make opportunities from challenges. The work is not easy, of course; it never has been for leaders, much less those leading while Black, but the rewards of success could not be greater. Because for every Black leader who steps up to the demands of Black leadership, the hope is that it makes stepping up a bit easier for the next generation of such leaders.
So, onward, and upward.
Dr. Dwight A. McBride is the president of The New School.