Cultural Purgatory, Part 2.

note: this aint my campus. just... fyi.

note: this ain't my campus. just... fyi.

I’ve been an adjunct professor in the Midwest for three years now. By virtue of location and profession alone, I have enough material to write twenty parts to this Cultural Purgatory series.

But let’s take it one culturally dissonant experience at a time. I teach at two schools: one is a large, practically isolated, suburban four-year state university; the other is an urban, two-year community college with open enrollment. As you can imagine, one has three times as many minorities as the other. And as you might surmise, I feel far more at ease in one environment than the other.

On average, I have 3.5 Black students per semester at the four-year, usually spread over a two- or three-class population. I shouldn’t, but I always find myself expecting to bond with my one or two Black students. It isn’t always a conscious expectation. In fact, I usually don’t know that I felt it until I realize it hasn’t happened, a month or more into a term, and a strange wave of disappointment capsizes me.

This semester, it hit me this morning. There’s only one black student in my morning class. We’ve discussed her work, one-on-one, once. It was a simple exchange: we talked about whether or not she’d chosen an essay topic. She had. We were genial enough, I guess. And my default style is a flat classroom affect, so I don’t want to give you the impression that I was effusive or ebullient or anything.

But sometimes, there’s something behind the eyes. There’s a flicker of recognition, a relational attraction, an unspoken sentiment: we’re both here, both different. I see you. Sometimes, it exceeds that and a full-on friendship develops. Other times, that’s all there is: a single acknowledgment that you are among the very small portion of your current populace who has to do the double-consciousness thing.

There’s none of that with this girl. And that’s fine, of course. I have no right to expect this ineffable Thing to exist, just because I’m a Black teacher and she’s a Black student at a predominantly White college, in a predominantly White state.

It’s just that I do. I do expect it. I expect it every semester. And these aren’t the first times.

In grad school, there were three writing concentrations. Among them, in my graduating class, there were two Black women in fiction (other than myself) and one in non-fiction. These were the only Black MFA candidates I knew. And over a two-year period, I never established a lasting rapport with any of them. As with my Black students, I won’t pretend I made all that much of an effort. Several random emails to one, shared class banter with another, a cordial glance or broad smile at the other: but nothing remotely like, “Hey, girl! Wanna go see Saul at the Bowery?!”

No.

There was none of that, in either direction. And that was fine, of course. Because there’s no reason why there should’ve been. For one, writers can be a solitary and/or exclusive bunch. We spend massive amounts of time alone, composing. Some of us (okay, maybe just me) have a really difficult time with large-scale public interaction.

I’ve always been socially awkward—so all of this may have more to do with my inability to sustain conversations and forge friendships, period, than it does with any culturally- specific shortcomings.

Then again, it isn’t like I don’t bond with any of my students. And it isn’t that I didn’t make any friends in grad school. I just don’t find myself effortlessly connecting with My Own.

… Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

(Right?!)

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slb (aka Stacia L. Brown) is a writer, mother, and college instructor in Baltimore, MD. Check her out here: http://stacialbrown.com and here: http://beyondbabymamas.com.

10 comments to Cultural Purgatory, Part 2.

  • Scipio Africanus

    I went through this at work a few years ago. At a previous job, all the black line level folks (as opposed to Operations folks) were either tight, or more than just cool, with one another. At the next job, I was the only black person that wasn’t in operations, and when they finally hired a new girl, I just assumed we’d be thick as thieves. Didn’t happen. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t Trini, because she seemed to bond with the Jamerican Trini individual who was responsible for processing our TPS reports. I eventually gave up on the idea of being friends with her and moved on.

  • geo

    i understand your sentiment. i used to become frustrated when the other black person would choose to mingle with white folks instead of getting to know me. i took it personally, but it was not. people have all sorts of life experiences that make them feel more comfortable to be around other people. to add to all of that, how people view and value people place on their culture is idiosyncratic. it’s unfair to them and you to expect an instantaneous connection based on one commonality. (but it would be nice in certain situations.)

    additionally, i think your role as teacher plays a part in why some may not connect. the teacher-student power dynamic can be intimidating for some students. so they may more reluctant to get on a more personal level with a teacher.

  • ladyfresh

    It’s a strange thing. I do understand. I work in advertising and i get a bit hopeful when a black creative (art director) (so far 3 in two years) comes through. I don’t expect friendship but yes when there is that odd ‘it’s just us…do you see?!’ …it’s comforting and yes can be disappointing when it’s not there.

  • Anon Academic

    Wow… just… wowzers. You’re in my brain! (Bl)academics unite!

    This part is so on the money:

    “And over a two-year period, I never established a lasting rapport with any of [fellow black graduate students]… I won’t pretend I made all that much of an effort. Several random emails to one, shared class banter with another, a cordial glance or broad smile at the other: but nothing remotely like, “Hey, girl! Wanna go see Saul at the Bowery?!” No. There was none of that, in either direction. And that was fine, of course. Because there’s no reason why there should’ve been. For one, writers can be a solitary and/or exclusive bunch. We spend massive amounts of time alone, composing. Some of us … have a really difficult time with large-scale public interaction.”

    I mean there are def. people in grad school I’m tight w/ … and at times, I did make an effort to kick it with other “folk”… but I “won’t pretend” either… sometimes it was really hard to become tight with other (black) grad students… and I think the social awkwardness came from both sides (i.e. I have no interest in going to a wine & cheese party and discussing academic stuff all night… and I know a lot of folks who have no interest in hitting up the NYC lounges in their spare time; as such, we… just… didn’t… kick it. lol).

    On the flip side, bonding with your students is really hard. You can’t “cross that line” between friendship and professionalism because it could have serious repercussions (i.e. your students thinking they can take advantage of you… or thinking you can “hang out.”).

    I’m fine w/being a mentor or advisor… but nope… we can’t be friends (even if I privately think you’re cool). Professional distance for the win.

  • mari

    I think this is more than just high-level academics; I graduated from a Big 10 University and this issue was actually discussed in a forum my freshman year: the idea that as less than 10% of the total population on campus, on the rare occasions you ran into another black student, some kind of acknowledgement was expected. You desired it, sometimes you were downright hungry for it, because white people could and did walk by as though you didn’t exist. And nothing would make black students more mad than if another black person walked by and didn’t give that acknowledgement. No fist raised, no head nod, no combination handshake/hug. Not doing those things was considered a pretty big offense/insult on campus among black students. And they made notes of those blacks who only socialized with whites and talked about them negatively. The only difference between that and this post is that I think just being younger, we were more vocal about our need and desire for connection. Being one of less than 600 blacks on a campus of 40,000 was a shock to almost everyone and we were constantly looking for ways to feel like part of a larger group and have a connection. I did it too even though I’d spent my high school years in a predominately white high school, where it was the same.

    I’m about to start grad school in the spring in Boston at yet another predominately white school and am curious if it will be the same dynamic all over again. I’ve spent the past five years in Chicago, where I’m so used to seeing black people around every corner, I don’t give it another thought. But when I did the campus visit in Boston, it was surprising how my old feelings came back. While on the tour I scanned the classrooms for other black faces and the few I saw, I at least tried to make eye contact with them. The psychology behind it is complex. But at the end of the day, I don’t want there to be any question on someone else’s end. I do see you. You’re not invisible to me here, even if everyone else is treating you like you are.

  • I have the toughest time talking to my advisor. She’s a Chicana from Texas. I’m a Chicana from California. You would think I’d have developed some kind of rapport with her in the last 5 and a half years, especially since I was her only official advisee in the first year she was a faculty member at my school. Nope.

    On the other hand, there’s a Chicano professor in my department, but teaches in another division. I had one year-long class with him. It was a large class, full of all his students clamoring for his attention. Every time he sees me, he’s always very kind and concerned about my progress. It’s not fake. He really does want to know how I’m doing. He reminds me of an uncle.

  • I understand exactly what you’re talking about and I have to admit I would ignore other Black folks on purpose.

    I grew up in the Bronx and went to high school in midtown Manhattan (LaGuardia of all schools, one of the biggest), so I was used to being in environments where I DIDN’T know everybody and it was very diverse. Then I get to Monmouth University down on the Jersey shore, and the percentage of Black students was 4%, Latinos barely 1%, and I didn’t see the numbers for Asians, but they probably didn’t bother do the math because there were literally only 3 Asian kids and I knew all 3 of them.

    I joined the African American Student Union and the NCNW on campus to make friends (because I had a house off-campus instead of living in the dorms), and by the 2nd semester of my freshman year I realized I knew ALL the minorities. Not even just the Black students, but all the students who weren’t white. This disgusted me. I always hated the attitude some white people have that all Black folks know each other, and I realized in this situation it was actually true. Even remembering it now is pissing me off.

    So basically, when the new class of freshman came in (along with a new President who realized the school was stuck in the 60′s), I made it my business notto give a head nod or wink to anyone I wasn’t formally introduced to. Looking back, I may have come off as a snob, but at the time I felt better knowing I really didn’t know EVERY Black person on campus anymore.

    Oh, and by the time I graduated the percentage had gone from 4%- 7%, thank God.

  • Ron

    This happened when I started undergrad, too. I connected with my black professors pretty much instantly, because even when I disagreed with them, their perspective and accomplishment really reminded me of home and I was a bit older at that point and sorta yearned for that adult connection. The subjects they taught probably helped this a bit, too.

    There was a group of students who participated in the on-campus black student association and then there were the black students who weren’t part of it. If you weren’t in the club, then the connections generally didn’t happen because folks in the club tended to roll together.

    Everyone pretty much always said hello and such alike, in spite of that, but…there was a bit of an unspoken idea that you should be in the club and if you weren’t, there seemed to be resentment towards that as if somehow you thought you were better and that’s the consensus from my black friends who weren’t part of it.

  • slb

    thanks for this response. i do want to clarify that by “bond with students,” i don’t mean “be friends” with them. that’s not the expectation. at most, i find myself hoping that they won’t avert their eyes when they seem on campus (during or after my semester with them), but will instead say hello, smile, nod, or in some way acknowledge that we’re passing each other.

    i kind of expect that from all of them—and i get it from about a third of them.

    it’s a strange and unsubstantiated hope. and i agree with you that the teacher-student power dynamic hinders it.

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