Black Faculty and the (Ab)Use of Power

By Altheria Caldera, Senior Professorial Lecturer, School of Education, American University

For many African Americans, seeing the faces of the police officers who killed Tyre Nichols was particularly jarring. As I watched reactions on social media, I sensed a collective embarrassment and an anger that seemed to ask of the officers, “How could you. . . why would you do this to your own people?” As George Floyd’s murder presented a time of reckoning for the country, Tyre Nichols’ murder offers Black faculty an opportunity to examine how we might (ab)use institutional power with Black students.

There is a legacy of violence inflicted by white Americans who are authorized as state agents (and by those seeing themselves as holding such authority) against African Americans. Because of this history, we are not shocked to see white police officers continue to operate in this way. In fact, many of us have come to expect it.

But the officers who killed Tyre Nichols are members of our community. In an interview with Don Lemon, Tyre’s mother, Rowvaughn Wells, shared her perspective—one that reflects how many African Americans feel: “They’ve brought shame to the Black community.”

Despite the fact that both victim and assailants are Black, this incident was fueled by anti-Black racism and white supremacy. As many people have pointed-out, Black people, especially those who are institutional agents with institutionally granted power—such as law enforcement officers, social workers, and teachers—are not immune from committing racialized violence.

Faculty of Color as Institutional Agents

As faculty of color at institutions of higher education, we, too, are institutional agents who have been invested with certain levels of institutional power. And we must use our agency responsibly so that we are not violating our students and “bringing shame” to our communities. Tyre Nichols’ murder reminds me to remain conscious of the ways I’m impacted by white supremacist culture and how internalized whiteness might stealthily creep into my teaching and mentoring Black students.

Institutions of higher education—where I’ve spent more than a dozen years as faculty—are white supremacist institutions. That is to say, the values and norms that shape institutional policies and practices are rooted in Eurocentric culture and are upheld by white actors. In writing about white supremacist culture, educator and activist Tema Okun offers a caveat about culture: “Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify.” She goes on to say, “The longer you swim in a culture the more invisible it becomes.” Because of this truth, it is essential to my success as a professor that I am a reflective practitioner whose critical work is inward, not just outward, and a lifelong learner who relentlessly pursues knowledge about educational justice.

Racialized Violence

As an example of my reflexivity, in “Being a conduit and culprit of white language supremacy: a duo autohistoria-teoria,” my colleague and I examined the ways we had contributed to the marginalization of Black and Latinx students because of how deeply we were entrenched in Eurocentric language expectations. Our article describes the linguistic violence that occurs when the languages and languaging practices of multilingual, racialized students are denigrated in favor of Dominant American English (DAE). But this is just one of several types of violence students of color experience in academic institutions.

Though their work is in K-12 settings, Boutte and Bryan’s description of the forms of violence Black students face in schools has implications for higher education as well. They list the following forms of racialized violence: physical, symbolic, linguistic, curricular and pedagogical, and systemic. The violence to which Black students are subjected—which is likely unintentional—results from institutional agents’ (ab)use power. These agents—staff, faculty, and administrators—regardless of racial/ethnic backgrounds, swim in white supremacist culture. We must cause a stir in the water by swimming upstream to disrupt white supremacist culture.

Disrupting White Supremacist Culture

Disrupting white supremacist culture looks like centering histories and cultures that have been relegated to the margins, implementing teaching strategies that break down hierarchical relationships between faculty and students by seeing students as collaborators in knowledge production, encouraging critique over compliance, respecting religious differences by supporting student’s learning during non-Christian holy days, and valuing the voices and perspectives of racially minoritized students. (See additional resources for more on antiracist strategies in the classroom.)

Lest we forget, a defining characteristic of white supremacy is anti-Black racism. As African American institutional agents, we must be intentional about disrupting anti-Black racism. In order to lead the work, we must be the work. We can do this in a number of ways: by advocating for support services, examining and reducing the effects of one’s own biases, identifying and nominating Black students for awards and recognitions, and establishing behavioral expectations that are not culturally biased.

Important, too, we must remove stereotypical lenses in order to view students as individuals shaped by their cultural backgrounds. African American institutional agents must also show-up in academic spaces as our full selves, embodying the cultures we represent. When we are unapologetically “Black” in white-dominated spaces, students know that their Blackness is also welcomed.

Finally, it’s important to point-out that racism, generally, and anti-Black racism, specifically, is always violent—regardless of who performs it and where it is performed. In institutions of higher education, we cannot attribute anti-Black racist violence to only white institutional agents. When we make anti-Black racism a Black/white issue, we fail to recognize the ways it shows up in other communities, even in our own, even in ourselves.

Author Profile

Altheria is a proud first-generation college graduate whose work as an antiracist educator is rooted in her personal experiences as a Black girl growing up in Alabama. She earned a Ph.D. in Curriculum Studies and graduate certificate in Women and Gender Studies at Texas Christian University (TCU) and has published nearly two dozen peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. Her scholarship focuses on ways educators can advance equity for students of color and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.