I don’t remember the first time answering a professor’s question with I don’t know. But it must have been one of the first answers I gave in class. An answer that worked as a place-holder for the knowledge I would eventually acquire on the subject at hand. An answer that’s synonymous with what is it?, which is the question I asked when I first encountered the words independent study.I was sitting at the dining room table of Franklin & Marshall’s Writers House an hour early, which was less a mistake and more a consequence of an all-nighter. Erik, early on purpose, asked me if I was interested in working on an independent study during my senior year.
I’m sure I gave him an answer, one I can’t recall now, but I know I said I’d think about it. I filed the thought away and returned to it a few days later over dinner with my friends, first-generation college students who, like me, hadn’t heard of this vague independent study. “I think it has something to do with research,” somebody said. Google didn’t help, and I told myself it didn’t matter much. He probably forgot about it already.
A year later, after defending my honors thesis, I jokingly told Erik over Zoom that I had agreed to the independent before I knew what it was. We laughed then, and it’s still funny to me now, but it’s also true. When I couldn’t find a student who had completed an independent study, I wondered if it was something I could do. Not just if it was something I was allowed to do, but if it was something I was capable of doing.
I walked into our Writing Nonfiction course the following week resolved that nothing would come out of it. I was accustomed to faculty mentioning opportunities to me without much guidance afterwards. Suggestions about how I should spend summer at a specific abroad program, or an internship, or a fellowship were abundant, but the logistics were never clearly explained. And if they were, they didn’t feel attainable. I couldn’t wait for a stipend to reimburse the money needed upfront, nor could I afford to take up an unpaid internship. While these concerns were significant to me, I also knew through their omission that I was meant to work them out on my own. After all, I was a college student with access to all the resources my institution had to offer. So of course it was enough for a faculty member to mention an opportunity because it was assumed I would know who to ask should I need help.
Only I didn’t. I hardly did.
Whenever I happened to stumble across the right someone, it was normally after some in-depth consultation with older students and a lot of luck. I assumed the pattern would continue with Erik. Except he asked me again. My hands were busy packing up my backpack, and I still didn’t really get what this independent study business was, but I said yes. I agreed precisely because he followed up.
The numbers alone tell a story. While some 42% of American college students are people of color, around three-quarters of American professors are white. These numbers obviously vary from institution to institution, but in general if you’re a student of color, like Sandra, you’re likely to spend a lot of time working with white professors, like me. And whiteness, for students of color, is often an obstacle to learning.
Take, for example, a particularly white reading list in our discipline, creative writing: how can the readings open avenues for students to tell their stories if the students don’t see themselves reflected in those readings? Part of literature, one might argue, is the opportunity, even the necessity, of empathizing across identity lines, but that becomes a problem when it’s the only thing you ever do, the only thing you’re ever asked to do, when a dearth of representation might lead a person to believe that their stories aren’t worth representing, or can only be represented through a white lens.
But even when it isn’t an issue in terms of a student’s academic performance—when a creative writing major succeeds despite a lack of adequate models—whiteness can still provide structural obstacles. Students of color are, for instance, less likely to be recruited for research projects in all disciplines, or to be aware that such opportunities even exist. The same goes for things like independent studies. How, as a student, do you take advantage of everything that’s possible if you don’t know what’s possible? Especially if the institutional structures assume you know what you don’t? And even when you do know what’s possible, how do you take advantage of an opportunity if you have no guide to follow, no person to go to with your questions?
I was aware of these inequities when I asked Sandra about conducting a yearlong independent study. I knew that statistically speaking she was less likely to approach me about it than her white peers. Here, I thought, is an exceptionally talented writer and thinker who probably doesn’t know that there’s this special way she can dedicate a portion of her remaining coursework to an extended project with one-on-one guidance.
This wasn’t, I should mention, the first time I had taken on an independent study, but in my eight years of teaching at the college it was only my second. That’s because at F&M, as at most institutions, there’s a disincentive built into the process. Faculty aren’t compensated for independent studies, and they don’t count toward our teaching load. Mentorship, in other words, is always extra. And while the costs of that extra are not borne uniformly across or even within the faculty ranks, the more salient point is that if we’re looking to improve mentoring, we have to create systems that support and encourage it.
But about that earlier independent study: she was an international student whose white family had lived in Africa for many generations. Her project explored the complexity of her identity and the ways the racial politics of her own country were both like and totally unlike our own. She knew that relative to her compatriots she was a child of privilege, and even though we were often talking across cultures, we had that in common. I was, in some ways, better equipped to mentor her.
With Sandra, on the other hand, I was probably less well-equipped to be as good a mentor as she deserved. I know there are things I did wrong, things I didn’t know how to do right, but the fact is that I learned as much, if not more, from her as she did from me.
The advice I received about college was simple: be a good student. Be so good that they won’t think less of you. This means learning early on what kind of professor you’re dealing with and holding yourself accordingly. This means not directly questioning the syllabus when it’s majority white writers because that could be seen as confrontational or disrespectful. This means not asking your professor why they let a self-proclaimed “devil’s advocate” ramble on for so long because you learn that a comment that “rubs you the wrong way” may have been read as a robust discussion by said professor. This also means answering a crying prof who asks you what you think about the 2016 election in front of the whole class, the day following election night, because you should be thankful she’s giving you space to talk.
What does being a “good” student offer me when it demands my compliance? When it assumes I’m just a student, as if I ever had that option? For first generation students and students of color, attending college also means becoming cultural educators, peer mentors, financial aid advisors, group therapists, writing tutors, and any additional roles required for our survival.
I withdrew from a course the same semester Erik followed up about the independent study. At the time, unbeknownst to him and many others, I was dealing with a mental health crisis. I had stopped attending therapy earlier in the semester after not bonding with my therapist, a white woman, and I couldn’t grasp something to ground me quick enough. My core group of friends were all studying abroad that spring, and I was still finding my way into the nurturing spaces I needed, like the Women’s Center.
It was the first and only time I withdrew from a class, which I did to prevent a repeat of my fall semester, a time when my thoughts regarding my life became unsafe. I’d write it plainly, but it’s something I still carry with shame, so forgive the passive voice.
The professor whose class I dropped, another white woman, tried to convince me to stay. After a particularly long email where I detailed the reasons, she responded in her own short email:
Although I understand that you are feeling overwhelmed, I don’t think that the best way for you to proceed is to drop the course. Although it may feel totally overwhelming, and you may feel like you cannot do the research, I have confidence in you that you can. Part of succeeding in college is to learn how to navigate time management, competing demands, and asking for help when you need it.
I include her words because I think it gets at one of the struggles students of color experience when dealing with very white professors. Whiteness, as a structuring power, is such that white professors can define “success” in college as learn(ing) how to navigate time management, competing demands, and asking for help when you need it. If I were a “normal” student (normal meaning white, and mentally healthy), this recipe for success would be easy to follow. Easier than boiling eggs even. When the assumption is that all students can simply time manage their way towards success, every other student who does not fit that “normal” is harmed, first-gen and BIPOC students in particular.
What does it mean to navigate time management when your time is divided by responsibilities beyond academics? To work in between classes, pull all-nighters to complete assignments, and deal with the microaggressions of being a student of color at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI)? What does a professor’s confidence in you provide, when the “you” is ignored? What good is asking for help when it’s coded as giving up?
A lot of things that make college difficult for students of color are not accounted for by most of the white professors we encounter. And if they are, these things are seen as “personal problems” or things that should be separate from the academic. But here’s a truth: when the environment you’re learning in fails to ensure your safety and material security, separating the “personal” from the academic becomes impossible.
I’m willing to bet that most professors assume their students trust them. It’s a side effect of the position of authority we occupy. But just because a student wants to be so good that you don’t think less of her doesn’t mean your relationship is founded on trust. It only means it’s founded on power, and on presumed inferiority, which for a professor might manifest as arrogance and for a student—particularly a first generation one, a student of color at a historically white institution—as the feeling that you don’t belong, that you have to prove yourself worthy.
Even if professors aren’t questioning that assumption of trust, and thus actively working to build it, students learn to challenge it for themselves. Sandra notes that she started college thinking that all of her professors meant well, and she acknowledges that mostly they do, but she also points out that meaning well doesn’t always mean much. Your intentions aren’t relevant when you fail to recognize that for many students separating the academic from the personal is not only impossible but is actually a form of violence.
There are tangible, measurable things a professor can do (and that whole institutions can do) to mitigate that violence. You can decolonize your syllabus, making your readings as broadly representative as possible. You can explicitly state that discriminatory behavior in the classroom is unacceptable and will result in consequences. You can eliminate late policies and busywork. You can make your readings available for free. You can incorporate accommodations for access and mental health. You can ungrade.
There are also things you can do that have more to do with the kind of atmosphere you cultivate. You can bring your students snacks. You can spend class time chatting about your lives, checking in with one another. You can prioritize their experiences as new-ish adults navigating a complex and often hostile world. You can set as your primary course outcome not mastery over a set of skills or range of material but rather an ability to empathize and engage with others. You can think of your students not as lab rats running your elaborate obstacle course but as human beings whose needs and challenges and loves and hopes are many and various and valued.
But above and beyond everything else a white faculty member can do, to deserve the trust of our students of color in particular we first need to do the anti-racist work of reckoning with our own whiteness. We need to understand the ways that deliberately constructed social and economic systems have paved our way (and our parents’ way, and their parents’ way) through this world while actively disadvantaging others. We need to acknowledge this and, to the degree we’re capable, we need to work to dismantle it in our personal lives, in our research or creative work, and in our pedagogy.
This work, Sandra and I would argue, is the foundation for any effective white mentorship. Because you cannot understand the litany of challenges and demands students of color face until you understand the context for those challenges and your roles in them. We would argue, further, that white mentors need to be explicit with their students about how they’re navigating and rejecting that legacy. How else do you know you can trust a white person if you don’t trust that they’re working to renounce their whiteness?
At the same time, we wonder if this work is enough. Is it enough for white professors mentoring students of color to understand the context of our challenges and your roles in them?
Erik notes that the numbers alone tell a story. Let me further personalize them for you. Out of twenty-two professors I had throughout my undergraduate career, five were people of color. I took class with three of the five for the first time my senior year. Two of those three were visiting professors who accepted tenure track jobs elsewhere.
Modifying your individual behavior as a mentor, while necessary, isn’t enough to fix the problem. It’s good work. It’s important. And still, it falls short if the work stops at your one-on-one mentorship with a student. You can’t solve institutional discrimination with self-scrutiny and personal change alone. We know this.
I know this.
At a weeklong writing workshop the summer before my senior year, I met a professor who seemed aware of her whiteness and the privileges it afforded her. During our one-on-one session regarding a piece of nonfiction I had written, she asked me where I was from, where I studied, what my relationship to writing was. She told me that, as a white woman, she couldn’t relate to my experience, about which she knew very little, but that she remembers what it felt like to be a young writer rushing to get published. How she wished she would have taken her time. I remember thinking briefly about when we would get to my piece, but in an effort to appease her, I said that I was in no rush to publish. I thought it would help shift the conversation away from me and toward my piece, which I had some questions about.
We were sitting outside on a marble bench aligned against a fountain. Our backs were to the water and the sun as it was settling in for the evening, my copy of my piece firmly in my hands to stop the slight breeze from stealing the unstapled pages. When she turned to me and asked if I had any thoughts about graduate school, I smiled thinking of Erik and another professor of mine, the poet Meg Day: they were the only two people who had told me to seriously think about it until then. She smiled and said, “that’s good,” when I admitted I didn’t have any strong feelings about it. I don’t know if it was the water or the wind or the descending sun or her words, but I felt cold. I wanted to ask her what she meant by good, but I stayed quiet and nodded along with her as she explained that she didn’t want to crush my dream if it was something I wanted. Our meeting ended, and with it, any confidence I had built up about my writing.
Perhaps, in another reality, if she were my mentor, she would have known to read my silence as pause. Maybe, if she had known I was a first-generation student, she would have understood that I had no strong feelings about graduate school because I didn’t exactly know that it was a realistic option for me. Maybe, if she had taken the time to know me, she would have known that some of the things I needed from her were her care and attention to my work.
Here’s another truth: I shouldn’t have to be her mentee in order to receive such considerations.
I’ve been in rooms with white faculty who clearly understood their whiteness. Faculty who knew all the right words. Words you’ve probably read more frequently the last few months from institutions everywhere: diversity, equity, and inclusion. Words that don’t amount to much when they’re not connected to meaningful structural change.
We are writing this at a moment when that work, long overdue, seems to be underway. Or maybe that’s too optimistic, too premature. Maybe we all just recognize the opportunity. Our institutions could change, but that’s not to say they will.
It’s an obvious point that the composition of faculties and administrations need to diversify, but merely hiring more employees of color won’t ensure, at least in the short term, that our colleges and universities will become more nurturing places. Just because demographic shifts can herald cultural shifts doesn’t mean you don’t have to be intentional about ushering in the new, which is also—perhaps primarily—to anticipate the new challenges and opportunities that will arise. The places where whiteness has been coded into the institutional fabric are not always obvious, especially to the policymakers.
Sandra’s story about asking-for-help as giving-up, for example, highlights the flawed assumption, however it gets inculcated, that a student shouldn’t have to ask for help because the student should already know how. Looking around a classroom in which maybe only a few other faces reflect, to whatever degree, your own, you might understandably perceive that other students (white, middle/upper-class, many privately educated) already do. Whether or not that perception is true is irrelevant. It makes little practical difference if the norms around us are merely performative. They can still shape our behavior.
On some level, perhaps the most damaging one, education is about proving you know it all. Practically speaking, the know-it-all is the one who gets the A. Self-assurance is not strictly a white characteristic, of course, but the assumption of rightness is certainly a characteristic of whiteness. And while we might get behind high competency as a learning outcome, as a precondition it fails too many in advance.
If the playing field is to be level, then all participants need to perceive it as such. But then again, why is it a playing field in the first place? Why have we allowed the metaphor of competitive sports to shape how we conceive of a classroom? Remove the sense of competition, the sense of hierarchy, and you remove a barrier that in fact affects all students, even if some may be more prepared to face it.
Rather than prescribe what it might look like in practical terms, maybe it’s enough to invite our institutions to reconsider what they mean by success. Because like the competing demands students have to manage, individual measures of success are not uniform across the population. The notion that a person might life-skills her way to an A underplays the structural and cultural barriers, but it also premises the grade as the goal, the quantitative marker rather than the qualitative process.
What else might success mean? And how do we get to a place where it’s equally accessible for everyone? Where obtaining the conditions necessary to flourish is a given, not a struggle? If we aren’t seeking, and enacting, answers to these questions, we may be wasting our time.
These questions aren’t new. We aren’t the first ones to extend an invitation for change, and we surely won’t be the last. We also aren’t naive enough to believe our institutions, or at least some people within them, don’t know how to move forward. They must know. If they don’t, then they haven’t been listening to their BIPOC students and faculty, folks who have articulated their frustrations with academia and how violent it can be to survive an institution in the name of education.
Sometimes, which is a lot of times, I struggle naming the specific oppressive systems at work. But not naming these racist structures is how institutions (and those who work to uphold them, even unconsciously) ask for neutrality and peace and politeness. As Ibram X. Kendi argues, there is no such thing as a race-neutral policy. Staying neutral only upholds the status quo, in this case academia’s culture, centered and founded on whiteness. Staying neutral is a refusal to change.
If we are to reimagine what success looks like, could we also dare ourselves to reimagine what working towards a more equitable college experience looks like without centering the institution as it exists? Far too often, colleges are more preoccupied with their image than with undergoing the necessary introspection to enact meaningful change. Far too often, institutions are more concerned with appeasing their donors, parents, and alums than with meeting the needs of marginalized students.
This work isn’t easy. It’s uncomfortable and it requires a great deal of unlearning that will hardly feel good. Can our institutions listen to their BIPOC students without branding themselves as the new vanguard of equitable education? As we task white mentors to decenter themselves, and in the process center the BIPOC students they’re mentoring, we ask institutions to do the same. Otherwise, you risk replicating the same inequities that brought us to this point.
Before I moved to Pennsylvania for college, I spent the summer building my writing with USC Professor Carlos Antonio Delgado. As a SCS Noonan Scholars scholarship recipient, I had to attend the program’s summer academy to improve my chances of doing well my first semester. In other words, to ensure I didn’t drop out. In many ways, it was my first time in a college classroom. I’ve been in many college classrooms since then, with students just as bright, but that was still the most diverse class I’ve been in to date. We were kids from South Central who were eager and confused and vulnerable, and we devoted ourselves to our writing. We improved thanks to Carlos and his generous feedback, and perhaps more importantly, we left understanding how our positionality in the world informs our writing.
It’s a lesson I’ve held close all these summers later. In the same way that our positionality in the world shapes our writing, it’s also true for how we hold ourselves in our relationships with one another and, yes, even our institutions. I was given the opportunity to precept my last semester of college (I was like an undergraduate TA), and although I didn’t really know all that the job required, I said yes. I said yes because I thought back to my freshman year and how different it might have felt to see a preceptor who wasn’t white in a room with mostly white students, in a subject taught by a white professor.
As their preceptor, I put together a tiny toolbox kit my students could reference for revision. I included a question Carlos had asked me that summer before starting F&M, “Are you willing to wreck what you have to build something better?” It’s a question I extend beyond my writing these days. One I now ask of you: Are you willing to wreck everything you know your institution to be to build something better?
We hope the answer is yes. Your students won’t accept anything less.
Sandra Sanchez is a recent first-generation college graduate, completing her B.A in Creative Writing at Franklin & Marshall College. A Salvi-American, she was born and raised in LA, where she currently resides. Erik Anderson is the author of four books of nonfiction, most recently Bird (Bloomsbury/Object Lessons, 2020). He is an Assistant Professor of English at Franklin & Marshall College.