What It Is Like to Be A Black Woman Professor at an Evangelical College
Christena Cleveland — who taught at Westmont College for two years — offers a devastating narrative of what it is like to be a black woman professor at a majority white evangelical college. Here is a telling excerpt in what really ought to be a compulsory reading for anyone who cares about justice and is affiliated with evangelical colleges:
“As the only African-American faculty member at a Christian college for two years, I experienced a constant state of stereotype threat; I was almost always in situations in which others could potentially view me in stereotypical ways. During my first week on the faculty, a white male colleague confirmed this when he approached me and “confessed” to me that he was really pleased that I had joined the faculty because he had been harboring some prejudices against black women (lazy, stupid, violent, etc.) and he was glad to meet a “respectable” black woman who would force him to rethink his prejudices.
He thought he was doing me a favor by being transparent and confessing his prejudice, but it only served to heighten my stereotype threat. I knew that I had to represent black women to the entire community, that I needed to be a credit to my racial-gender group, and that I’d better not show any weakness. Like the women of the racial uplift movement, I thought that the StrongBlackWoman in me would save me.
Over the course of those two years (the worst of my life), I refused to show any vulnerability or need even though I dealt with overwhelming institutional racism and sexism, psychological homelessness, disrespect from students, and more. After oppressive interactions as the only woman and only person of color in committee meetings, I would grit my teeth, vowing to myself that I would never let them beat me, that I would never let them see how much they hurt me. So I repressed my anger, sadness, anxiety, fear and loneliness, and busied myself with taking care of my students and others in the community like the StrongBlackWoman that I was. Everybody thought I was fine.
Walker-Barnes says, “StrongBlackWomen suffer in silence.”
The dam finally broke during my exit interview with a senior leader on my last day of employment. He responded callously when I tried to explain the concept of microaggressions to him. I simply couldn’t take it anymore. I started sobbing uncontrollably, eventually excusing myself from the interview and retreating to my car where I cried nonstop for several more hours. It wasn’t until months later that I realized that I wasn’t crying because he had been callous. I wasn’t even crying because his callousness represented all of the institutional callousness that I had experienced over the last two years. No, I was crying because I had let them beat me. Even then, I was more concerned with upholding the façade of the StrongBlackWoman than with getting actual help. That’s the magnetic power of the StrongBlackWoman identity and the hegemonic forces that keep it alive.”