Everyone knows Black students encounter bias in college. So do queer students. But a new book, Black and Queer on Campus (New York University Press), examines the experiences of those who are both.
The author is Michael P. Jeffries, the dean of academic affairs, Class of 1949 Professor in Ethics and professor of American studies at Wellesley College. He interviewed students at more than a dozen colleges, some of which were historically Black.
He answered questions from Inside Higher Ed via email.
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Q: People know that Black students face discrimination and that queer students do as well. How do these biases differ and how are they similar? What is the impact on queer, Black students of having to face both kinds of discrimination?
A: Racism and homophobia have different institutional and legal histories in America, so the biases that flow from those histories are bound to be somewhat different. Having said that, both Blackness and queerness give rise to prejudice and bigoted anxiety connected to sexual deviance. Histories of Blackness, queerness and Black queerness invalidate the patriarchal norms and stereotypes that are so central to American mythology.
Black LGBTQ folks are vulnerable to attack along multiple axes: race, gender/sexuality and the intersection of race and gender/sexuality, which means that the resistance they enact must address all the elements of their identity. Many of the students I spoke with do not believe, for example, that their situation is bound to improve simply because of progress on the LGBTQ rights front.
The experiences each student has is shaped by their background and the type of college they attend. At predominantly white institutions, where Black students are a minority, they are often subject to racist stereotypes and social isolation inside and outside the classroom. This includes spaces that are supposed to be safe for exploring LGBTQ identity. In order to counter these experiences, Black students often form social groups and organizations that bolster their sense of community. But the students I spoke with told me that their experiences within Black student organizations were often unsatisfying because they did not feel that their identities as LGBTQ folk were always validated, or that LGBTQ issues were viewed as important.
At HBCUs, Black students do not deal with the same sort of racist stereotypes and race-based social isolation on campus. But the students I spoke with did not feel as if the institutions they attended were as supportive as they should be when it came to celebrating and embracing LGBTQ communities, educating people on campus about LGBTQ issues both inside and outside of class, providing the best health care possible, and recruiting faculty and staff who could serve as mentors and mirrors for their students.
Q: You are an administrator and faculty member at Wellesley College. At institutions like Wellesley—in the Northeast, private, competitive in admissions, most students liberal—why is bias of the sort you write about still a problem?
A: Region, prestige and ideology do not inoculate any of us from racism, sexism and homophobia and transphobia. We are dealing with legal and institutional histories of racism, sexism and homophobia that are centuries old. These histories shape the ways we think about and teach our academic disciplines and the ways we organize campus life. I hasten to add that socioeconomic class is another force that intersects with racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. Social class, I would argue, is one of the most powerful biases that affects our ability to serve all students, because of the stereotype that the student who attends a residential college “goes away from home” and has no other obligations or pressures that influence their studies. We know that this is not true for most students on our campuses, who remain connected to home and wrestle with the challenges of those connections all the time. The students in my book certainly spoke about this truth.
Q: What about historically Black colleges? You note the mixed reaction to President Obama’s remarks at Morehouse. Many HBCUs have been slower to embrace equity for queer students (although they are catching up). How would you rate HBCUs in this regard?
A: There were over 100 HBCUs in the country when I began writing the book, and there is tremendous diversity among them, so I don’t want to speak in broad strokes here in suggesting that all HBCUs have been too slow to embrace queer students. Put differently, I’m not going to rate HBCUs in this regard. What I will say is that the students I spoke with felt there was much work left to be done on their campuses. They didn’t feel they had the visibility or respect they deserved from students, faculty and staff. They didn’t feel especially supported or seen by college leadership. In speaking about the role that queer Black student organizations played on their campuses, many students told me they felt they were leading the way in educating everyone on their campuses about LGBTQ issues. They also yearned for more chances to study LGBTQ topics, especially the overlay of race and queerness, in the classes they were taking.
Q: What should all colleges do to welcome their students who are queer and Black?
A: Welcoming students is a start, and I think it has to begin when students are recruited. Emphasizing that there are multiple communities for students to explore, and featuring organizations for queer students of color the same way other student organizations and activities are featured, would be helpful. Similarly, it is vital to support and celebrate the academic offerings in gender and queer studies, Black studies, and ethnic studies programs. Though many Black LGBTQ students find intellectual homes in these programs, many do not; I am not suggesting that these are the topics that all queer Black students want to major in. But what we do know, based on research about the impact of ethnic studies on broader indicators of student performance, is that when students have a chance to delve into subjects that are connected to their identity and history, they actually improve their performance and persistence across all areas of study.
Another thing I would add is that institutions have to do everything they can to create deep and diverse pools of candidates when they hire faculty and staff. Emphasizing diversity in recruitment and retention of skilled faculty and staff makes it more likely that students will be able to find mentors who share similar life experiences, which is something that several of the students that I spoke with yearned for.
Q: You are Black, but are straight and cisgender, and your Ph.D. is from Harvard. How did you relate to the students you wrote about?
A: I related to them as someone who is in touch with the college experience, just because I’m a professor. I was inspired to write the book in part by several of the students I have met during my time as a faculty member who had concerns and triumphs with some of the students I interviewed.
I think another thing that helped, in a tragic way, was that I conducted the interviews while the Trump administration was in power. Black folks from all walks of life were subject to violence, insult and intimidation on a daily basis because of the rise of white supremacy. When you watch footage of the white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville and you hear the terrorists shouting homophobic slurs in one breath and anti-Black slurs in the next, you can’t deny that these struggles are connected to each other. Queer Black folks have always been on the front lines. Put differently, I know that my future is linked to theirs, and I approached each interview with care, openness and gratitude.