Posted on May 22, 2015

What I Learned Teaching at a Historically Black College

Nyasha Junior, Washington Post, May 21, 2015

I have attended predominantly white schools from preschool through my doctoral program. I’m used to carving out a black space in a white world. As an undergrad at Georgetown University, I sat at “the black table,” the one cafeteria table where many black students congregated for a fun, raucous dinner and discussion of the day’s news. The black table was not forced upon us–it was a refuge. The girls who wore Ralph Lauren, athletes and poli-sci presidential hopefuls sat at their respective tables, but they didn’t stand out as we did.

As a black student at predominantly white institutions, or PWIs, I focused on my studies without worrying about whether other students assumed that I was a “token minority” or invited me to their study groups. {snip}

Later, as an academic at a PWI, I put my years of practice as the only black person in the room into being the first black woman to hold my position. I relied on my “make them feel comfortable” bag of tricks–smiling more so as not to be called an “angry black woman,” being extra friendly to be considered a “team player,” keeping my Warren Moon-composure in the face of many microaggressions from students and colleagues.

And then I took a teaching position at Howard University.

The relevance of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, is an ongoing debate. Some HBCU student bodies are no longer majority black. While on average HBCUs accept more low-income and first-generation students and cope with racial disparities in state and federal funding, they have similar retention and graduation rates when compared with PWIs with similar institutional characteristics and student demographics. {snip}

But as a black scholar, teaching black students, I have found that Howard helped me connect to my lineage as a black academic and helped me understand that even very bright students of color struggle with notions of inferiority in the classroom.


I also had to adjust my teaching style at Howard. In my opinion, I’m a tough but fair professor. On the first day of class, I make clear to my students that I have high standards and let them know that there will be no extra credit. When I taught at PWIs, I said the same thing unapologetically, but I wasn’t prepared for the many ways in which the insidious myth of black inferiority would show up in my Howard classrooms of nearly all black students. Linked to the notion of white supremacy, this myth holds that blacks are not as intelligent, resourceful or capable as whites. Compared to my experiences at other schools, I found that a greater percentage of my Howard students had severe test anxiety and lacked confidence in their academic performance, even though my students were bright, capable, articulate and eager to learn. They did the assigned reading and confidently discussed course material during class. I struggled to find ways to improve their test scores. Soon, I realized that I was combatting years of students having internalized lower expectations and the repeated explicit and implicit messaging they “didn’t test well.”

Even though I myself am black, I had to develop greater cultural competency to assist this group of students. I maintained my academic standards, but I learned strategies to teach the classes in front of me. I started giving practice tests to help students build their confidence. I provided more opportunities for students to lead discussion and to teach each other to develop a supportive learning environment. I gave pre-exam pep talks to remind students that they were excellent students and that I expected everyone to do well. I did more cheerleading because more of them needed it. I cannot state strongly enough that my students were absolutely capable and in no way inferior to any group of students I had taught in the past, but more of them needed more of a push.