Race on Campus: The Mental Burden of Minority ProfessorsHistorians in the News
tags: racism, higher education, diversity, academic labor
Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history at Georgetown University, is typically the only Black scholar in the room. She often finds herself in the “delicate position” of presenting perspectives that have been ignored — especially those of minority groups.
She feels a responsibility, she says, and a desire to use what power she has to advocate for others. But that means she’s engaged in a constant mental calculus to pick her battles and figure out which of several urgent equity issues most need her attention.
When faculty members feel singled out for their racial identity, the loneliness, added stress, and even impostor syndrome can take a toll. Sometimes those feelings and other factors, like an inability to create meaningful change or frustration over being the “token” minority in the department, can prompt them to leave their institutions.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the fall-2018 semester, people of color made up less than a quarter of full-time professors. After the country’s racial reckoning began last summer, institutions such as the University of Texas at Austin, Colgate University, and Columbia University pledged or renewed promises to hire more faculty members from minority groups.
In graduate school at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Katrina Phillips was one of a “bunch” of Native students, but now, as an assistant professor of history at Macalester College, she’s one of a few. People who identify as Alaska Native or American Indian make up less than one-half of 1 percent (0.4 percent) of professors nationally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“There are so few of us by the time you get to this level," Phillips says, "and a lot of the times it just feels really lonely.”
Phillips teaches courses on the American West and Native history, connecting the material with present-day issues. Every semester without fail, the topic of Native American mascots for sports teams comes up in one of her classes, she says. For Phillips, this isn’t a simple class discussion.
“When you literally feel like you are representing everybody, like representing your people, there’s so much weight that comes with that,” she says. “There’s so much weight and so much pressure.”