Racism in Higher Ed: One Instructor’s Perspective

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Article Summary

  • Challenges of navigating higher education from an African American perspective include facing discrimination and unfair treatment.|Many Black Americans experience tokenism and a racial divide in the workplace.|Long after the civil rights movement, racism and hate crimes are still pervasive in the U.S.|Admitting that institutional and systemic racism exist is crucial to addressing it.|Dr. Furdge shares three tips for taking action against racism in higher education.
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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Dr. Cherly Gary-Furdge is a Professor of Criminal Justice and Sociology at North Central Texas College


I am an African-American woman, working at a predominantly white institution. This year I celebrated my 20th year in higher education. For years, I felt like a blind spot at the college. I associated with no one and no one attempted to associate with me. In other words, I was alone. Eventually, I started being asked to sit on hiring committees, and that’s when my connections with others began.

Although I was connecting with others, establishing relationships did not come easily.


Understanding Challenges

As I reflect back to the first day in my office, I think about my supervisor bringing me my books and saying, “I guess you can see there are not many of you here.” The comment caught me off guard and left me wondering what I walked into.

From that day forward, I was afraid of what was going to happen to me. However, I went to work every day with a smile on my face. I treated my students, faculty and staff with much respect. I would be remiss to say that I was treated the same.

Understanding challenges among African Americans is vital in contemporary society. Many people think the issues of racism, discrimination and unfair treatment no longer exist. Things have gotten better, but to say the issues no longer exist, exhibits a lack of knowledge.


Understanding Discrimination

I cried, smiled and was glad I was able to see history made in 2008, when President Barack Obama was elected. On November 7, 2020, I was able to experience that same joy. We now have an African-American woman as the Vice President of the United States of America. There are two focuses here: Black and Woman.

We cannot forget that women were discriminated against as well—therefore, this is huge. While I get excited about Vice President Kamala Harris’s victory, I still fear the reactions to her appointment. I guess you ask why? When President Barack Obama was elected, I saw racism rise to another level. He and First Lady Michelle Obama received much criticism, and were called names such as “monkey” among many other hurtful words.


Understanding Tokenism

Not only did the first family of the United States face racism, many Black Americans did—I surely did. In my role as a leader, I was called the Black token child of my school, was told I was only there because I am Black and was overlooked for many things.

The harder I worked, the less I was acknowledged. Currently, things are better, but this went on for years. I must say that after I received my Doctorate degree, I gained a little more respect—but that did not change the racial divide in the workplace.


Understanding Hate Crimes

Historically, the divide between African Americans and whites was very apparent. If a white person said a Black person did something, no matter what the Black person said in their defense, they were not believed.

An example of this form of treatment was carried out in the killing of Emmett Louis Till. Emmett was a 14-year-old African-American boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of offending a white woman in her grocery store. The killers were arrested and tried but were acquitted of the crime.

The brutality of his murder and the acquittal gained national attention. Later, the accuser admitted that she fabricated her story, but by that time, 14-year-old Emmett was dead. Currently, in Mississippi, a center has been named in honor of Emmett. Within the past two years, the sign in front of the building has been destroyed and replaced three times.

Many may say, “yes, but that’s in Mississippi.” Well, what about James Byrd Jr., who was murdered by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas, in 1998? While Till’s murder was before the work of the many civil rights leaders, Byrd’s occurred after the civil rights movement. James Byrd thought he was getting a ride and some drinks from people who wanted to hang out with him.

Consequently, he was chained to a truck and dragged for three miles. Byrd’s dragging was ruled a hate crime and the defendants were prosecuted.


Understanding Subtleties

In the ’60s, civil rights leaders sacrificed time, effort and for some, their lives, to ensure African Americans were viewed and treated as humans—and not animals or property. As we examine America today, we can see that the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, Medgar Evers and many others were not in vain.

African Americans are now able to vote, get a good education, drink from fountains that are not labeled, eat at nice restaurants and serve in office. Their efforts didn’t make racism disappear—it appears now in a subtler form.


Understanding Awareness

My hope is everyone can understand and come to the realization that systemic and institutional racism are real. As I talk to many people about my experiences, they will say they just don’t understand.

My response is always, that their hypothetical is my reality. I live this every day, in my community and in my job. Will this ever end? There is no answer.

I always say, racism is an issue of the heart. Things will change when the phrase “All Lives Matter” includes everyone. One cannot understand how racism functions in America today if one ignores group power relations. The concept of racism does not mean everyone is a racist, but it remains true that racism exists.

We can end this. But to do so, we must be aware of the sense of superiority and entitlement that comes with not consciously seeing—or admitting to—the big elephant in the room called “racism” that’s still present in contemporary society.


Addressing Racism in Higher Education

There have been many conversations about how to address racism in Higher Education—but, my question is, “When will we move from having conversations to putting things into action?”

In order to address the issues, I suggest:

  1. Training. This should include hard conversations and the disbursement of knowledge. I am a firm believer that you can’t hold people accountable for what they don’t know. I am not saying that everyone does not understand racism—what I am saying is that training will hold individuals accountable.
  2. Create a zero-tolerance policy. We have policies for technology use, sick leave, abuse of resources, etc. Why not have a policy for racism and ensure everyone signs it and receives a copy?
  3. Include college-wide book reads and have discussions about the books. By no means am I saying educating people about racism will rid the world of it, but I am saying it will hold faculty and staff accountable and prepare us to better serve our students. Change is not always easy but in most cases, it is necessary.


Read more about race relations in higher ed on Today’s Learner. And don’t miss higher ed experts discuss strategies for promoting inclusivity online.