On Wednesday, February 21, over 40 students, staff and faculty members gathered in the Axinn Center’s Abernathy Room to hear black faculty members speak about their experiences navigating primarily white spaces, including Middlebury.
The panelists included literatures and cultures librarian Katrina Spencer, computer science instructor Jason Grant, associate professor of history William Hart, assistant professor of American studies Jessyka Finley and artist and J-Term professor William “Kasso” Condry.
Middlebury’s fall 2017 student body profile reported that only 4.1 percent of the student body identifies as black or African American, and Data USA reported that 0.73 percent of the town of Middlebury’s residents are black. But for many of the professors who spoke on Wednesday’s panel, Middlebury was not the first predominantly white space they had faced. They bring the influences of these past environments to their work here.
Spencer spoke about the significant impression left on her by her undergraduate experience, which she said had a similar environment to Middlebury. “ I felt very unseen,” Spencer said. “I was a human body in the class, but people didn’t see me as a human being, so it definitely affects how I interact with students because I try to see them as whole people.”
Grant discussed being a minority among students pursuing Ph.D.’s in Computer Science. He described an incident that occurred in his last year of school, when his senior work professor told his adviser that he couldn’t reach Grant or his black classmates because of the “cultural gap.” That ostracizing experience led Grant to a new pedagogical outlook.
“I try to find any type of way to connect to my students because once that professor said he couldn’t teach me, I felt like I no longer belonged there,” he said. Grant also added that at Middlebury he feels “extreme pressure to represent the black community.”
Professor Hart said that he and his siblings were the only black students at their high school and explained that at Middlebury he feels subjected to a similar “uninvited hypervisibility.” Hart also said that people in the community outside his department see him as a “black person interested in only black things.” He recounted an interaction with a well-meaning colleague who presumed he had read a book because it was by a black author and also described an encounter with someone he ran into on the street who told him that reading the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” had made him think of Hart.
While these professors are working to positively influence Middlebury through their work, they are also still facing the challenges of living and working in a predominantly white community here at Middlebury. However, it is not only words, but also the lack of discussion, that some of the panelists find problematic about Middlebury.
“There is a lot of silence around race and social justice,” Spencer said. “There is a fear white people have about talking about race. They don’t want to say the wrong thing, so instead of the wrong thing they say nothing, which creates another silence.”
Professor Finley emphasized that despite these challenges, the ability to teach at places like Middlebury is an amazing opportunity that black professors want to take advantage of, and that the administrations at rural schools like Middlebury should be aware of this. “
There is this assumption on the part of a lot of people who are doing the hiring that people like us don’t want jobs here, can’t hack it here, can’t get our [hair cut here], and [that] we’re city people, but we want jobs, and this is a good job,” Finley said. She added that extending more faculty job offers to people of color, as well as increasing financial aid, will help to increase diversity at places like Middlebury.
“This institution is over 200 years old — it’s probably going to take that long, if not longer, for it to be equal as far as white and black here,” Condry said. “But that’s where it comes in with the type of teaching you’re doing, to hopefully inspire that next person to inspire the next person.”