Twelve years ago I made the very conscious decision to move from Maryland back to the “southern part of heaven” Chapel Hill. Although the job offer from my alma mater, the prestigious research institution University of North Carolina (UNC), was compelling, the overall lifestyle of the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill) area including the food, liberal bent, location, and slower pace made the sale pretty easy. I thought I knew this attractive small town having been a graduate student in the mid-1980s. And on the surface, all my fantasies about living in a diverse, creative, and hospitable community have come to pass. However, over this time period I have intentionally kept my eyes and ears open to stay grounded and cognizant of those trap doors (more so than the glass ceilings) that confirm the very rich research findings that speak to the challenging environments that most Black people experience when living and working in historically white institutions and cities. My connection to Tar Heel athletics excellence and fandom can’t even mask the racist practices that exist in our wonderful county.
As a youngster focused on academic and sports achievement, I didn’t reflect much on the racial inequities happening in our township or prestigious and largely white school system. My mother provided me with all the books and discourse I needed to escape to other worlds where I could dream and create beyond my five street low to middle-income neighborhood. My limited exposure with negative racial matters included the rare scuffles at school where Black students had to band together to demonstrate solidarity against the White students who dared to fight one of us. And I never even considered our household economic status. I was just happy that my Mom made me feel secure with her attention, which was demonstrated in our heavy conversations, a shared fondness for sports, and support for the pursuit of my interests. Our bond was loving, deep and respectful. Beyond school interactions, the other racial learnings were much more powerful as they occurred during the very intense extended discussions that took place on weekend evenings in our kitchen. Our home became the central place in the neighborhood for extended family and friends to gather and analyze and dissect the plight of being Black in the United States. These intellectual gyrations pushed and inspired me to go deeper in the examination and celebration of Africans and African-Americans in the United States. I often chuckle at how living in North Carolina has called me back to those heated debates around Black survival with more than a sprinkle of religion, politics, and economics. Nikki Giovanni’s “Truth is on its Way” and Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” albums were embedded in my spirit during those formative years when music served as the background to our warm gatherings and weekend activities.
Over the years, I have come to recognize and believe that the ugly tentacles of racism show up in the most lovely places. Duke University sociologist, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in his book Racism Without Racists states, “The main problem nowadays is not the folks with the hoods, but the folks dressed in suits.” The pressure point of advocating for change or disrupting the status quo generates an almost routine backlash and pushback from traditionalists in suits or dress jeans. Who fiercely defends tradition and the past? Those who have come to benefit from its almost impenetrable gates filled with exclusion, financial rewards, and social status. Racism can often be found there too. To that end, I find it critical to have a clear definition of racism to navigate the United States experience and mine includes a power dynamic. People in systems and institutions having the ability to control access, experiences, and resources to define reality is the foundation of power. When power is made invisible, racism thrives. Racism allows for systems and institutions to use their power to advantage certain people over others due to racial prejudice. Despite my academic credentials, joyful attitude, faith in God, and a life long immersion in White culture, I still find myself and people of color being excluded in Orange County by White people due to racist practices. (Sure there are reasons to omit me and others from places and spaces but that is for another article. I am referencing those very obvious experiences that work to advantage some and deny others based on race.) Perhaps I shouldn’t be so guileless to believe that our area, which markets itself as being open, diverse, and progressive, would be so ignorant or dismissive of all the inequities that exist here.
The facts. For decades now, we can’t seem to muster the will to implement an effective strategy to create equity in our K-12 educational system. According to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice’s Racial Equity Report Cards, our two systems forged from racism and an identity struggle, Chapel Hill-Carrboro (CHCS) and Orange County (OCS), continue to fail despite the wealth of our residents, low crime, credentialed leaders, and a well-resourced UNC School of Education within a 20 minute drive of nearly all of the schools. For example, in the 2017–18 CHCS school year 87% of White students were categorized as college and career ready compared to only 30% of Black students! Black students were 3.2 times more likely than White students to receive a short- term suspension in 2016–17 in OCS! It seems that our primary and secondary system is particularly designed to exclude or deny quality education to certain populations based on race. How else can one explain how bright minds repeatedly miss the equity mark in our schools and allow for young people to suffer academically?
While UNC has a documented history of failing to recruit and retain Black faculty (amongst other concerns), it maintains its prominence amongst public research institutions. The overused answer to the failure of Black faculty security is the lack of available talent and “fit.” Research and observations continue to disprove that illogical argument for the explanation to the racial gaps in higher education. The reality is that Black faculty at historically white institutions are often expected to be better than their White colleagues while simultaneously being responsible for a disproportionate amount of service work such as mentoring, advising, and committee work. Often White men are hired and groomed with the clear expectation to develop, learn, and grow into the professorship position as an assistant over a few years while Blacks are usually hired as an assistant without this support and a level of expectation to be ready by the end of their first year to “prove their value” as an associate or full. Many White administrators and faculty will deny this unrealistic expectation and explanation. However, the data and outcomes show otherwise.
Add this academic demand to living in a city that has few cultural activities that reflect one’s interests is a recipe for failure. The authentic desire to help students of color feel welcome and comfortable becomes a work tax for Black professors. This invisible labor is often not valued during the annual review and promotion consideration, which further exacerbates the often uncomfortable environment of being the only faculty member of color in a department. For example, there is a big assumption by White university administrators that most students of color are just happy to be at the university, such that there is no need to be intentional in creating formal opportunities with Black faculty engagement. It’s the “shut up and dribble” argument applied to college life for Black students. Quiet as it is kept, Black faculty and staff are a significant reason why many Black students stay enrolled in these often hostile environments. And yet, there is rarely a public acknowledgment or job reward for this critical service. The number of Black faculty who have obtained tenure or long-term fixed contracts is depressing. Most UNC departments have zero Black full professors. Assistant professors are “churned and burned” and leave UNC without a consideration by senior faculty or administration of historical injustices faced by Black academics. During this exit phase, there is talk of equality but never equity.
Clearly, there appears to be a strong lack of will by administrators to implement an effective mechanism to increase the number of non-White faculty or to change the racial makeup of the faculty on most college campuses. The common explanation of “it’s like that everywhere” is empty and disappointing considering their ranking of being distinguished academics and leaders who have made a commitment to be of service to others. I’m grateful our country’s greatest innovators did not have that attitude. Now almost like clockwork, the new leaders will send out a request at the beginning of the academic year for ways to make things better. If it were not so comical, I’m sure many people of color in university communities would just shake their heads in disappointment and sadness. How many times do we have to ask for administrators to not only listen to our voice but to implement our recommendations? Structural racism has been researched for over 100 years! And yet, there is an annual plea asking the entire university community for answers and guidance. Is there a better example of being “hidden in plain sight”? I now truly understand why so many Black faculty over the years have chosen to ignore these disingenuous and empty calls for help.
Not surprisingly, Black professors who study race related issues are viewed as less credible and rigorous academics than their White peers. Members of the university community who publicly display an unwillingness to conform or stand up to the inequity, which goes against the university’s stated mission of having a diverse community, will generally be ostracized and pushed out the door. For many Blacks that push provided the needed spark to find a more nurturing and healthy environment to thrive and unleash their gifts to students and communities. My own experience and friendships with colleagues at UNC and other universities across the country underscore this challenging reality.
Despite the exclusion and injustices that Blacks experience as employees and residents in Orange County, some choose to stay. I am in that number. The longing for a more loving and equitable community is genuine, but when I interact, plan, engage, and share smiles with conscious White people who “get it” I am motivated to hang in there and count my blessings. The skies are bluer, the lines are shorter, the traffic is manageable, and the food often tastes better here. The facts are clear about our educational issues, and one can find similar injustices for other institutions such as criminal justice, environment, healthcare, and religion. It is noteworthy that our churches are probably the most identifiable examples of denial and dismissal of racial bias and unequal treatment. And yet, the Whites who use their voice, resources, and access to stand up to structural racism in our institutions and organizations as leaders (and not allies) are a blessing. They continue to motivate some people of color to remain hopeful and more importantly, to help us get through another day of being viewed as inadequate, unwelcome or rebels.
As a curious academic, I am conditioned and trained to ask questions so I invited a group of Black professional women to my home for a “Sister Chat.” I asked them to confidentially share with me their experiences of living and/or working in one of the most desirable places in the U.S. I inquired of them: “Why do you choose to stay in Orange County in the midst of the overt and covert ways of exclusion and negative racial bias expressed towards us?” The themes were good friends, safety, children commitments, helping other Blacks survive, and religious reasons. The disturbing comments weren’t too surprising:
“It’s not too many opportunities here for Blacks.”
“…only God could have assigned me to this place.”
“I’m here for the students who are trying to navigate UNC and are experiencing culture shock…they need us.”
As we giggled the night of fellowship away, I stayed mindful of the joy of having brilliant Black women share laughter, food, and beverages. The atmosphere and engagement made me feel that we could have been in New York or Johannesburg, where a group of Black people congregating would not be unique or considered strangers in our own hometown due to the color of our skin. I am thankful that there are so many people in our county who have chosen to attend the Racial Equity Institute training and then go further by processing the observations and investigating the related research. I am hopeful that the thousands of participants have become lifelong learners who desire to apply the concepts in their lives. Far too often people try to substitute diversity or implicit bias training to evade the real conversations and learning about U.S. history, race, and racism. Another avoidance tactic is to attend a racial equity training, but not be fully present and therefore, only “check the box” and never reflect on the experience. I drove to Greensboro to take the workshop 6 ½ years ago after a strong recommendation from a White MBA student. Funny, how blessings show up in your life. His persistence was my blessing. Today we work together to open heads and hearts to a better way. The workshops, available all over the Triangle and across the country, transformed my life in how I understand, engage, and navigate living in a racialized society.
I truly believe that if more people participated in racial equity education, we would be better able to speak about the truth of our nation’s history, have shared language, and then use our imaginations to foster healing. The recent 1619 Project has inspired many people to learn and debate our complex history. We need committed and organized people to dismantle the racist structures, promote harmony, and respect for one another. News about national and state politics, discussions on the status of Silent Sam, protests again the Ku Klux Klan and the Lost Cause ideology, and being on the lookout for people seeking to harm us require us to be more thoughtful and engaged in efforts to make a change. Stepping away from our offices and the comforts of our homes to be close to those in the community who suffer the most from these inequities are necessary to fully understand and sympathize with the level of pain and hurt that exists for many people of color. How can one be an effective anti-racist if there is an absence of speaking to and knowing the realities of the “other”?
The tradition and status quo in Orange County has kept far too many people locked out. I am confident that many Whites would frown and deny their being discriminatory towards Blacks. However, we have to remind ourselves of what UCLA researcher Daniel L. Ames eloquently states, “racial biases can in some ways be more destructive than overt racism because they’re harder to spot, and therefore harder to combat.” As upholders and supporters of racist systems and institutions, people in our towns serve as unknowing gatekeepers or power brokers to maintain the disparities. Being liberal or progressive often blinds us to the ways in which we uphold the structures that are designed to keep people at a disadvantage. Using the word racist can be triggering due to its connection to slavery and genocide. However, we can all move beyond this often paralyzing emotion to land on the more important work of stopping the injustices that are happening in these systems we work in everyday. As we certainly push entrepreneurship at UNC, local business and community circles, why can’t we infuse creativity to also address matters of race and racism?
Blacks are here to stay in Orange County. Despite our dwindling numbers due to the attractiveness of the diverse and trendy Durham or Raleigh, we have hope that one day there will be answers and resistance to the racist treatment and attitudes. We want to just be. Paraphrasing the Queen, Dr. Maya Angelou, we bring the gifts that our ancestors gave. We are the dream and the hope of those who were enslaved. Thankfully, our faith is bigger than individual acts; we won’t stop fighting for the dismantling of the systems and institutions that perpetuate oppression and worst outcomes. Even if it means that the Orange County mystique takes a punch in the gut in the process. Our lives, our being, depend on it.