Image credit: The Ways of White Folks by Dr. Fahamu Pecou (2020), Acrylic on Canvas.
Malcolm X once infamously asked, “What do you call a Black man with a PhD? You call him a nigger.”
In this stunning sentence, Malcolm powerfully captured the out-of-body experience of teaching while Black. You walk into the classroom, armed with years of rigorous training and expertise, ready to fulfill your vocation, excited to shape and inspire young minds and to deliver your expertise to the next generation. But quickly you realize that you are an oddity, a curio, the novelty of a Negro in the academy: Look! You are a walking embodiment of contradiction between the life of the mind and the historical caricature of your Black body.
The starry eyes and smiles of your predominately white students align your presence more with the rap artists and reality tv stars they see on social media than with your colleagues who have the same level of expertise. They call you “cool” and try to give you the head nod, attempt to dap you up, or greet you with a “What’s up, Davarian?” or maybe, “Miss Baldwin.”
To paraphrase James Baldwin (no relation to the authors), the ubiquity of Black faces as forms of entertainment and service in white lives gives our students a false sense of intimacy. They know us before even meeting us. And then, when either of us has the audacity to insist that they call us Professor Baldwin, we are no longer cool. How dare we have standards of engagement that don’t align with the way that they want to treat us?
To be sure, not all white students act in the way outlined above. But, in their ubiquity, this string of anecdotes serves as a chain connecting far too many professors who are racialized as Black . . . or should we say: niggers with PhDs. With a heavy head nod towards Frantz Fanon’s famous opening to his essay, “The Lived Experience of the Black Man” in Black Skin, White Masks (1952), we share our experience, as Black professors, with the “Fact of Blackness.”
In some ways, we could be considered a dream team of Black excellence. We are both “doctors,” and Bridgette Baldwin also holds a JD. But in other ways we laugh at the nightmare of our trauma. It is a bond that comes from a shared experience of “epidermalization,” or what Fanon describes as an inscription of racial meaning onto our skin that overwhelms our life in the academy.
We both thought we had found some transcendence in the possibilities promised by the highest ranks of academia. To be sure, this profession has allowed us to create a wonderful life for ourselves and our family. But this elevation has never been disentangled from the suffocation that comes from being sealed into a crushing objectification. And for Bridgette Baldwin, the additional weight of being a Black woman adds additional pounds to the scale of iniquity, a burden that can never be fully measured by a simple metric of racial disparity.
We turn to the classroom as our shared site for exploring the varied scales of teaching while Black. Long before the controversies over The 1619 Project (2021) and so-called critical race theory, this space was more than a cathedral of learning. It was also a warzone between white supremacy and abolition.
And our Black bodies are the battlefield.
Davarian L. Baldwin:
There is no place like the classroom to crystalize a sense of being for others. One may suggest this is a reality all professors face equally without regard to race. But I say this is false. My body walks into the room before I do; a collage of meaning woven out of a thousand details, anecdotes, stories.
The particular masculinity of my racial schema works overtime to confirm my existence for the white world, even when channeled through students with the best intentions, students who are “really good people.” My years of oratorical training in both school and the church cascade into a series of perfectly pitched pauses, alliterative phrases, timed vocal inflections designed to invoke both excitement and reflection.
Then I read my teaching evaluations. This is all reduced to “he is so passionate!” An insistence on classroom accountability translated as “confrontational.” When relying on my own hard-earned expertise, I am “arrogant.” My introduction of scholars with knowledge beyond conventional wisdom is “bias.”
So, what happens when I lean into my students’ level of comfort, connect with them on a personal level? One would think this an especially advantageous approach at a liberal arts college that stresses intimate connection and reflection governed by “I think” and “I feel” statements.
But that doesn’t work either: especially when teaching about race, the personal becomes its own prison house. Any objective training in Black history and culture becomes merely my subjective opinion as a Black person. After all, difficult truths can be more easily dismissed when unknown facts from a Black professor become merely his “personal experience.” In this context, white students’ resistance becomes another “opinion” that is the equivalent to my training. In an ideal world, this leveling of power between teacher and student would be cherished as a democratic approach to pedagogy. But here, the desire to make “my skin” a more intimate space of learning merely reinforces my Black existence as labor for white comfort and service.
And then with intimacy, the confessionals—thought to be compliments—begin.
“I am so glad I took this class. I had this other Black professor, and he was terrible. If I didn’t take your class, I would have thought that all Black professors were bad.” Or how about: “It’s so cool to see you in more casual clothes because those tailored suits make you look like a pimp.”
And it’s not just the students. My colleagues also find solace in my skin. “The analysis in your paper was ok. I would give it a B. But your voice, oh my goodness, your voice is an A+.” My accessibility weaponizes white comfort into the violent erasure of my being. These colleagues co-sign this infrastructure of epistemic violence with queries about whether “diversity” will undermine standards. At best they sit in silence, sending concerned emails of “ally-ship” only after the damage has been done.
It is that dreaded time of the semester: teacher evaluation time at the School of Law. I walk into the classroom and announce to the students that it is time for them to evaluate the course. For ten minutes out of the over 3,000 minutes in a 16-week course, students get to exact their revenge on their law professor. I have contemplated this day, this precise moment, repeatedly.
The timing of this event must be perfect.
If I give students the evaluation after I hand back a graded assignment, I will be assassinated by those who do not like their grades. Maybe, I should give out the evaluations after I have hosted a catered party for the entire class on Halloween? Nope, that won’t work either. Been there, done that, I will still be demoralized, perhaps even more so.
Maybe, I could interact with the students throughout the semester, invite some of them to lunch, go to the movies with others or even organize a School of Law Zumba class and let them get to know me personally. Great idea! Then, after all of that I will give them the evaluations.
Wait, I am a Black woman teaching in a field dominated by white men, a field where I am consistently ostracized or marginalized and have still not been completely accepted. Even after over 20 years of teaching and earning both a JD and a PhD, my character will be questioned in my student evaluations, regardless of what I do. And it is this very brief moment in time, just ten measly minutes—not prepping another new course or grading exams for over 100 students—that will exact a tremendous toll on the safety of my mental health.
For over 20 years, there have been countless studies evaluating the effectiveness of Student Evaluations of Teaching (SET) more generally and of Black faculty in particular. The conclusions have indicated that not only are SETs not valid measures of teaching ability but that evaluations are also filled with conscious and unconscious bias based on race, gender, language, disability, sexuality, and other character markers unrelated to a person’s teaching ability.
SETs are not only ineffective as predictors of effective teaching, but they are also unfair measures of a professor’s work effort and competence. Specifically, professors like me, who identify as a woman of color and particularly, as Black, are evaluated based on negative factors which are unrelated to their teaching ability. In “Evaluating Student Evaluations of Teaching”(2021), Professor Rebecca Kreitzer analyzed two types of bias that can exist in SETs: Measurement Bias and Equity Bias. Measurement Bias materializes when professors are evaluated based on factors that do not measure the effectiveness of their teaching. In fact, these biases are not necessarily influenced by character markers, such as race or gender of an individual, but by the size of the class, the format of the class (online or in-person), the subject matter and even the time of day the class was held. It is Equity Bias that materializes when a professor is evaluated on factors based on identity, such as the race, sexuality, or gender of the professor.
Equity biases have influenced my SETs as a law professor, and I learned quite early on how destructive SETs could be. They are not just unfair, unhelpful, and inaccurate: they are also emotionally damaging and demoralizing. As a young professor, I walked into the classroom with a sea full of eager white faces. I set the stage for the journey of our time for the semester. I was prepared and had planned all 16 weeks of the course. I read several books to prep for it and wrote out my lecture notes word for word. I prepared outlines and handouts for the students, and PowerPoint slides to use during the lecture. I created hypotheticals to explain the material.
I was not only prepared but I was also organized, or at least I thought I was.
Over the course of the next sixteen weeks, I would teach criminal law: the act, the mental state, why we punish, so on and so forth. I would pose hypothetical after hypothetical. Students appeared to be engaged in the material. There were a few complaints about my inflexibility with late assignments, but no glaring grievances. However, on that infamous day, where ten measly minutes would make all the difference, I was not prepared for the lesson the students would teach me. “Professor Baldwin is the worst professor I have ever had, and she is Black, enough said.”
Did I just read that correctly? Am I the absolute worst professor? Is it because I am Black? Is my Blackness a factor in whether I am effective as a professor? Would I be more effective if I was less Black?
Yes, my competence as a law professor, and specifically, my qualifications to teach criminal law, was called into question because of my racial identity.
Since I became a law professor, after a distinguished career in criminal defense, I have been the only Black woman law professor at my institution. While there are a few other Black women who work at the School of Law, I imagine that most of the images these students have of Black women comes from popular culture: the “mammie,” “welfare queen,” or the “video vixen.” Obviously, by occupying a position of authority, I had overstepped my place.
In just one line—produced in ten measly minutes—my excitement about teaching law students evaporated.
Additional comments on my SETs evaluated my competence based on not just my race, but also my gender. One afternoon, I had to bring my young son to my criminal law course. He was about 5 or 6 years old. I sat him in the back row of the class, put headphones on his ears and turned on a video. He was completely silent, mesmerized by his video, for the entire class. At the end of the semester, one student evaluator remarked on an SET, “I do not pay all this money to come to law school to have her children in my class.”
This student evaluator never indicated how the presence of my silent child, on one day, for approximately 50 minutes, impacted my effectiveness, throughout the semester, as a professor of criminal law. In contrast, one day my white male colleague brought his two children to his criminal law course. During his lecture, he had to bang on the table to get them to stop fighting. Not one of his SETs that semester mentioned the presence of his children, their disruption during his lecture, or misspent tuition. These evaluations hold such power over promotion and tenure cases, especially for Black faculty, but my experiences confirm they have little to do with teaching.
Clearly, I survived to teach for many more years. But those ten measly minutes would forever impact my life. I did try to change my teaching style, the amount of coursework and my level of personal engagement with the students, but it didn’t make an impact. Over time, because of the emotional toll and the wounding nature of student evaluators’ words, I just learned to ignore these comments. Eventually, I even stopped reading my SETs: I came to realize that they were more about evaluating who I am, my essence, my soul and not much about my teaching at all. My teaching evaluations were about whether students liked that highly credentialed Black woman more so than how she taught.
Together, our stories reveal the profound degree to which the classroom serves as a projection screen for white anxiety. But the classroom is also a point of convergence between different worlds. The burden on us to bridge these worlds is not fair, and it is too much work.
But in our resilience, we continue to talk Black, dress Black, recover Black archives and stories, and teach while Black.
Together, we do more than struggle and survive: we thrive, turning daggers into roses, accusations into accolades, breaking the generational curses carried by our white students and peers that subject us to scripts of servitude. In our capacity to find solace behind the veil and simultaneously break the fourth wall, we confound them.
But the struggle remains real. The standpoint of “Look, a Negro” in the academy remains both an indictment of academia’s institutional racism and at the same time serves to absolve its racists. Ahh . . . sweet progress! In our presence, there are no easy resolutions, no certain guarantees in our success.
And yet we say, let the world look and learn!
Bridgette Baldwin is a Professor of Law, Western New England University.
Davarian L. Baldwin is the Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies, Trinity College.