By Felicia Hodges
Journalism – writing, editing and taking pictures for print media – is how I earn my keep. Being that my profession is not known for huge salaries, eating on a regular means I’ve often had to rely on a side-hustle to stay afloat. For the last two decades, teaching in someone’s institution of higher education has brought in a few extra ducats. Still, it’s rare that the person who meets me for the first time as their college professor isn’t shocked that I’m melanated.
I’m talking audible gasps with an occasional clutching of the imaginary pearls thrown in for good measure.
And I get it: There just aren’t many Black and Brown professors teaching in college communication departments these days. I had not one Black female instructor from undergrad through graduate school. In fact, only two of my male profs had skin tones even remotely similar to mine – so of course it stands to reason that stumbling upon something you may know exists but have never actually seen before might make your head do that Scooby Doo tilt.
That makes me a unicorn – and some of my students are simply stunned at the sight of one.
But in order to give that “WOW!” thing time to wear off, I have to work double time on the upswing to show and prove that my appearance at the lectern is not an accident. I have to actually help them get beyond the idea that they have a very BLACK, very FEMALE instructor so we can get to the business of learning already. To do that, I have to tell them about my years in the field, my years teaching and my degrees all within the first five minutes of our very first class.
In other words, I immediately have to step over a “make the students more comfortable” hurdle before we can continue. And it’s absolutely ridiculous.
Seriously - It’s the equivalent of saying “Now close your mouths so we can get started, ‘k?” – and that shouldn't be, because I’m thinking that other less-melanated, less female instructors don’t have to.
Basically, I have to sprinkle a little Black Girl Magic – complete with rainbows and glitter – on that mess to help turn every “Wow!” into an “Oh, ok…” It’s a lot of work to constantly have to make those around you feel comfortable by – and not just IN – your presence.
Of course I’m not the spokesperson for every Black woman in academia, but as I’m probably the first unicorn my students have ever seen, I automatically become just that when I’m walking into the classroom, plugging in my flash drive for a lecture and trying my damndest to give some sort of non-stereotypical – but still universal – example to illustrate a point.
And, trust – I always make the point.
For example, when I talk to my journalism and media literacy students about the press’ “neutral observer” role, I show them how having photos of Black folks in a newspaper onlyon the crime page can really slant coverage. I want them to understand the WHYS behind it all: That there are not a lot of Black and Brown editors deciding what goes where. Some of my students may be editors one day, and in order to fix a thing, you at least have to first acknowledge that it’s broken. And it is very, very broken.
I also teach self-defense classes every now and again. We explore all the ways that attacks could go down. I choose my descriptions carefully and never even come close to insinuating that the person who may be trying to hurt them is a big, “scary” Brown dude, despite what they’ve seen of on TV and in movies. In my class, they need to understand that being aware of possible danger does not mean assuming every brother out there is trying to do them harm.
But I wonder if other instructors think as hard about the examples they use. I wonder if they look for illustrative visuals aren’t stupid – and false – stereotypes.
Soon I’ll be talking to my journalism students about crime reporting. I have a ton of examples of how NOT to write a fair and balanced story, but the anxiety over actually finding real models of well-written, stereotype-avoiding examples has already begun.
It shouldn’t be this difficult. Pray for my profession, please.
Felicia Hodges is a writer, editor, publicist, communications instructor and karateka who lives in Orange County, NY