My August Ode to the #DifficultBlackProfessor

DIFFICULT. I have heard this word consistently in the past five years.  Obviously, it is not a new word within my vocabulary but its use in these past years has been unprecedented.  It’s an adjective that is used to target Black professors, not ALL Black professors, just some of them. I have never witnessed so many Black professors labelled “difficult” as I have at one particular institution where I have worked and it’s been a real eye-opener.

The slur always comes from White faculty and administrators in reference to Black professors (and sometimes activist Black students) and it has nothing to do with teaching.  I never hear students use this word to describe Black faculty (for them, it only references quantity of homework and applies to all faculty). I have heard it so much from White faculty and administrators that I started to catalog its multiple, racial iterations.

Here is what the #DifficultBlackProfessor looks and sounds like:

  1. The #DifficultBlackProfessor interrupts the flow of discussion, offline and online, reminding a predominantly White audience that they are, in fact, predominantly White. Institutions and their appointed, central actors (this includes folk of color) automatically act in the interests of White privilege, misogynoir, anti-Blackness, racial violence, and/or White faculty-student-staff dominance. The #DifficultBlackProfessor’s reminder will always slow down and sometimes outrightly thwart conversations about hiring practices, policies, elections, programs, panels, finances, public statements, curricula, and courses and she* will be resented even though she is dead-right on everything she is critiquing. While it would seem like the Black FULL professors, endowed chairs, distinguished professors, and the like would interrupt the most, that is not always the case since some of these folk really believe in their own brand and only come alive when something benefits them individually. The #DifficultBlackProfessor will do selflessness when they step up though. At these moments, the #DifficultBlackProfessor will be called non-collegial, non-team-playing, or bullying but that won’t stop her. She knows that’s just code for White discomfort and White fragility. #WhiteSupremacyIsNotMyTeam
  2. The #DifficultBlackProfessor will often get tone-policed.  He will be told that if his words and/or his tone were just a little bit different, it would be easier to digest his points.  He will be told this to his face and he will be talked about behind his back in public settings, using his full name, as a kind of warning to other faculty on what not to do and say (and who not to hang with). This White bourgeois etiquette lesson will be delivered offline and online, really just anywhere that language gets used. Make no mistake about it: these are lies.  The #DifficultBlackProfessor will not be heard any differently if he says things in a fake-nice, warm-and-fuzzy-feel-good way because the #DifficultBlackProfessor is not supposed to be heard.  This tone policing is really about White control of racial affect, racial emotion, and racialized counter-publics.  The #DifficultBlackProfessor ain’t fazed by this either and keeps talkin that talk the way he talks it. #YouAintReadyForNoRealTone
  3. The #DifficultBlackProfessor will say NO to you.  And OFTEN. She ain’t here for your endless requests of uncompensated, intensive labor doing things that do not benefit her or Black people in any way that will then be plagiarized as the idea of someone else.  She will see the irony of having her research and teaching marginalized in every way and yet constantly asked to do marginalizers’ heavy labor. This will stir up all kindsa controversy. White men may be allowed to offer little or no uncompensated service/time/work to a college but Black folk are not entitled to their time, money, and bodies this way. The #DifficultBlackProfessor refuses this kind of super-exploitation and will preserve herself since no one else will.  She does not suffer from the kind of low self-esteem where she covets the attention of White authority and she refuses to perform the perfunctory mammy role where she caters to White needs before her own. #YoMammyDoneBeenGoneWithTheWind
  4. The #DifficultBlackProfessor is not here to psychologically assuage White guilt.  This is especially true for Black women and women of color whose nurturing will be in constant demand. When White professors have a resistant student of color, they will come to you for advice.  When White professors need to infuse “race” or a “Black author” into their scholarship or syllabus, they will come to you for ideas.  When White professors need Blackface on their panel, edited book, grant/program proposal, meeting, etc they will come to you with the request.  When White faculty need to better understand Black resistance, they will come to you for sociological analyses. When White faculty have a question or curiosity about another faculty member of color, they will come to you expecting you to give up any secrets and gossip that you have. When White professors get caught sayin dumb racist stuff, they will come to you to tell them that it’s okay.  These are, sometimes, signs of collaboration but when it’s time to have YOUR back or publicly speak back to White violences, many of these same White professors will be nowhere in sight. Many Black faculty will perform these menial race-help tasks without even being asked but if you dare ask the #DifficultBlackProfessor for any of this mess without the prospect of real, anti-racist solidarity, expect to be ignored… or told about yourself, sometimes nicely, sometimes not.   #NotYourQuotaOrYourRaceCoach
  5. The #DifficultBlackProfessor doesn’t do silence and acquiescence, not in their research and scholarship and not in the way they live their scholarly lives.  Institutions are really, really, really bad at legally training their mid-level managers/administrators who are, for the most part, walking-talking law suits with the things they say and do and the hostile climates they create.  How universities can afford to keep their doors open with the blatant illegalities that I have experienced and witnessed has been truly mind-boggling!!  The #DifficultBlackProfessor will make one of two choices: 1) keep the best lawyers, lawsuits, and official complaints on rotation so that egregious racism and incompetence can be exposed to the tip-top decision-makers of the institution and state; 2) deal with administrators’ racial hostilities as an ethnography to be seriously analyzed in scholarship and exposed to the tip-top of intellectual and political discussions.  They will ALWAYS say/do something rather than choke their voices into compliance and passivity.  #DontComeForFolkWhoWillReschoolYou
  6. The #DifficultBlackProfessor handles their biz’ness at all times and never forgets that they work at institutions that have historically designed and benefitted from racist, social hierarchies.  When you have to work harder than everyone else because you are Black, a strange thing happens: you develop some real high standards and get your research and scholarship all the way done. You are not trying to trick, smooth-talk, lie, cheat, or weasel your way to the top, to the next gig, or to celebrity status, because you don’t need to. This means that the #DifficultBlackProfessor ain’t all that pressed by the foolishness around them. They know that the buildings and organizations where they do their work are not the alpha and omega of their aesthetic, intellectual, professional, or political life’s work and accomplishments.  They belong to larger histories, traditions, achievements, mentors, and communities that guide and motivate them onwards to real success.  They know the difference between their work and the job  . . . and superficiality.  #RealWorkIsAlwaysBiggerThanThis
  7. The #DifficultBlackProfessor ain’t worried or afraid of being called “difficult,” of being called “un-collegial” by racists, of being seen with other faculty/students/staff of color considered “difficult,” or being disliked.  They are not so desperate for White favor and upward mobility that they will sacrifice Black Radical Traditions and choke out their public complaints of institutions that continually do harm to Black lives, minds, and spirits. The academy’s attempts at racialized traffic control do not shape their sense of direction.  #NeverTurntAround

Each of my lines above was written with very specific events in mind, all together representing instances that have been repeated over and over again across multiple semesters. Before the school year ends, I am sure that I will be able to add more to my list.  As I watched a specific institution, I began to notice these same practices at previous places where I have worked, in attitudes of other faculty across the country, and in the vibe I have always gotten at many national conferences. Strangely enough, these seven attributes are supposed to be negative, where “difficult” is almost like the academy’s version of a racial slur.  I can’t think of anyone more noble or worthy in the academy than a #DifficultBlackProfessor. Now that we are in the full swing of August and I begin planning and thinking about my #NewBlackAcademicSchoolYear, I will remind myself of this list as my #ProfessorGoals.

Starting a new school year takes more than renewed energy to meet your new students.  You also need a renewed vision of who you truly are. I hope with all my mind and heart that I too will have the wisdom, dignity, and strength of my most radical colleagues, mentors, and ancestors to be and always become a #DifficultBlackProfessor.  Welcome to the 2018-2019 school year!


*Pronouns shift throughout this piece from: she/her/hers; he/him/his; they/them/their.