Being "Dixie" at a Historically Black University: A White Faculty Member's Exploration of Whiteness through the Narratives of Two Black Faculty Members

Article excerpt

Abstract

There is a great need for higher education faculty to understand the complexities of teaching students of diverse backgrounds. In this article, two Black educators mentor a White faculty member yearning to understand the nuances of the culture of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) because she wants to engage her students in meaningful learning. Supported by Critical Race Theory and told through the use of counterstories, the authors identify three themes or questions from their separate narratives: race, culture, and teaching. These mentoring stories offer an in-depth view of what it means to teach from three very different perspectives-those of a White woman, a Black man, and a Black woman.

Introduction

Regardless of grade level or content area, the beginning of any school year for any teacher is littered with challenges. As a recent graduate of a doctoral program and a new assistant professor, I expected my share. However, I was not prepared for an identity crisis when I accepted a faculty position at a historically Black university in North Carolina. At the cusp of my first semester as an assistant professor, a colleague approached me and asked me to not use my first name on my syllabi or as I introduced myself; she recommended I use my middle name instead. My name is Dixie (a family name for several generations). I had no idea why I should even consider using my middle name and not using my first name. My new position at this southern historically Black university suddenly became even more confusing and challenging.

After the "name inquisition," I knew that I needed assistance not only in teaching a population of students that I had never taught before, but also in understanding the sociocultural mores of a historically Black college campus. I sought out two others whom I believed knew much more about teaching at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) than I did. Graduate school initially brought Anthony and me together and several years later we now found ourselves teaching at the same HBCU. At the time, Anthony was a 27-year old Black man from rural southeastern North Carolina; he had recently completed his doctoral work and was working as an adjunct professor. Jewell, a middle-aged Black woman who taught me in graduate school, had over a decade of experience teaching in a historically Black private college. Since she recommended me for this new faculty position, she felt a special responsibility in helping me to plot my course in uncharted territory.

We initially began meeting every other week in the library on the campus of the HBCU. I provided an update on my teaching experiences and collegial interactions to Jewell and Anthony. Jewell decided that an element of my mentoring required the explanation about the South's history of education-particularly its failure in some ways and unsuccessful attempts in other ways to educate culturally and racially subordinated students. For me to understand the explicit academic explanations of these injustices would be one avenue.

Jewell and Anthony felt a more powerful way to share with me this information was through the use of storytelling, sharing their personal experiences through narratives. Storytelling is an aspect of Critical Race Theory (Ladson-Billings, 2004) and is frequently used to challenge racial and other forms of oppression. In addition, this form of narrative could "analyze the myths, presuppositions, and received wisdoms that make up the common culture about race" (Delgado, 1995, p. xiv). Thus, their stories would provide another lens of social reality or "alternative portraits of reality" (Ladson-Billings, 2004, p. 58) that are grounded through lived experiences as well as their experiences on the campuses of a historically Black college campus.

Through ongoing conversations with Jewell and Anthony, I began to form a context for my own experiences of Whiteness, a phenomenon to which I had never given thought prior to my appointment at this historically Black university. …