Several studies suggest it can make all the difference for students of color to see themselves represented in their teachers. While SIUE has made considerable progress in areas of diversity, some faculty members say there is still more work to be done in and out of the classroom.
While SIUE has recently launched several anti-racism and diversity and inclusion initiatives, Julie Zimmermann, chair of the Department of Anthropology and professor of Native American Studies, said her department still suffers from a severe lack of diverse faculty.
“Absolutely, you need to have diverse faculty representing those diversity topics, and the case and point I would give is Native American Studies,” Zimmermann said. “In our Native American Studies faculty here, not a single one of us is Native American, we’re all white, and sadly that is not at all unusual for Native American Studies.”
The fact that Zimmermann is teaching Native American Studies to Native American students as a white professor is not lost on her, but she says professors in similar situations should do the best they can under the circumstances.
“I taught Introduction to Native American Studies for several years … and I would state from the beginning, ‘I feel very uncomfortable teaching this class. I feel like a fraud because I’m white, teaching this Introduction to Native American Studies,’” Zimmermann said. “I guess it depends upon how the professor approaches it. If the professor makes every effort to fully educate themselves and … is perfectly honest and above-board about their inadequacies and shortcomings, then I guess that’s the best we can do … it’s better than to not teach it at all.”
Assistant professor of art therapy Jayashree George said she believes one does not have to be from the culture they teach about to be qualified.
“I’m not vetted to the idea that, for example, South Asian Studies need to be taught by South Asians,” George said. “I don’t believe that, because I’ve met many student scholars … who actually [know] more about South Asian history and South Asian culture than somebody who is from that part of the world, and who would be absolutely qualified to teach something related to South Asian [Studies] with as much verve and passion and integrity as someone who is from that culture.”
While her white peers can become fully knowledgeable about cultural subject matter, according to George, they have also been prone to microaggressions.
“Sometimes in the classroom, [when] they’re talking about India or Asians, the teacher might turn to me and say, ‘Well, you know all about it,’ because I’m the resident Indian,” George said. “And sometimes, I’ve also heard this other thing; applying for jobs, trying to get job interviews, there are those white colleagues who have told me, ‘Oh, you would have no problem getting a job because you’re a person of color and you’re a woman … just cut the line and get ahead.’ And I’m thinking, ‘That just kind of deleted all of my qualifications right there.’”
Experiences like these underscore the importance of having diverse faculty members. Jennifer Hernandez, an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, said the lack of diversity in her childhood education had an adverse effect.
“It kind of secured and solidified whiteness in the sense of … every perspective that you received was from a white perspective, and so it was very homogeneous,” Hernandez said. “There [weren’t] a lot of different ways of thinking or acceptance of different perspectives, because there was only one perspective offered.”
While Hernandez said she didn’t have a teacher of color until high school, George said she had the opposite experience — until she came to SIUE 30 years ago.
“Before I came to the United States, I grew up in India, and of course, I was surrounded by Indian teachers. However, I did go to a Jesuit school and the medium of instruction was in English, so throughout my education … English was not a problem,” George said. “Interestingly, I came from India to SIUE for my education … but back in those days, 30 years ago, we were not talking about diversity the way we are today. The focus back then was ‘you just have to assimilate and everybody has to become the same.’”
Zimmermann said the school can recruit a diverse faculty by utilizing its current tools and supporting diversity early on.
“It takes targeted faculty searches … We have this program within the university called Strategic Hire that we can use to target particular areas, so the University has to absolutely stand behind that. In some cases, it’s going to require higher salaries,” Zimmermann said. “But it needs to start with scholarships for college students … let’s put more money into our K-12 … it all starts there. If you want a diverse faculty, we need to be supporting diversity beginning in pregnancy.”
Once a diverse faculty has been hired, according to Hernandez, the university can work on retaining them by compensating for implicit student bias.
“Overall, your promotion papers are set up based on what’s expected in your teaching evaluations,” Hernandez said. “But oftentimes, [Black-Indigenous People of Color] faculty receive negative evaluations from white students because they don’t want to hear what they have to say, versus their teaching ability, and that can count against them.”
Hernandez said the school’s Anti-Racism Task Force is currently looking into the issue and developing possible solutions. According to George, the university can help create a sense of belonging by ensuring proportionate representation between all campus community members.
“I think it’s important that when you look at the demographics of the faculty, it should reflect the demographics of the student body, and in total should reflect the demographics of the United States,” George said. “That would certainly be a virtue that would be useful, because it affects people’s belongingness needs. You know, everybody deserves to belong.”
Hernandez said students who feel unrepresented by their teachers should seek those who do represent them and can help them achieve their goals.
“Find campus faculty that match the way you look, that match your social identities and seek them out, and there are programs in [the] Teaching and Learning department that we have for our BI-POC students [where] they are connected and mentored by BI-POC faculty,” Hernandez said. “Young people of color who want to be teachers, let me mentor you … let us help you navigate this, because we’ve been through the process and we know what challenges you’re going to face.”
For more information about the diversity of SIUE faculty, staff and students, read the most recent edition of the SIUE Fact Book.