In theory, the prompt for the Duke Immerse students in Tuesday’s seminar of Ethics in an Unjust World was straightforward. Taking a question posed by essayist Jennine Capó Crucet in her book My Time Among the Whites, each student was asked: How many of your college professors have looked like you?
Using beads that corresponded to racial categories from the US Census, each steadily built out a multicolored string of that—while peppered with green, purple, and red beads to symbolize non-white professors—mostly hued to a baseline of clear beads that reflected the predominantly white faculty. The exercise is crude and simplistic, of course: “Race is not as simple as a bead,” said Adam Hollowell, the course’s instructor and senior research associate at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity. But by its conclusion, when everyone tallied up their beads, the point was clear: While some students had had fifteen or sixteen professors that reflected their racial identity, others had had just one or two.
Such disparities can entrench poor outcomes for both students and faculty in the “out-group” categories. As black and brown professors teach courses that may reflect race and cultural complexities, their classes are seen as niche, whereas those taught by white faculty are seen as “universal” subject fields—even if these social complexities warrant inclusion—think Public Policy, History, or Economics. Minority students struggle to find mentors in their desired field of study, or simply get the message that their voices and perspectives aren’t valued in that field. As one current public policy student said, “I found it hard to believe that there wasn’t an expert on that topic who looked like me.”
The few minority professors who succeed in academia (and especially into these “universal” subject areas where face greater underrepresentation) also face a heftier burden when it comes to mentorship.. If every student wants a mentor who looks like them, the black faculty encounter time commitments on a scale that white faculty don’t, providing white professors the disproportional extra hours research and study. “And what happens if I publish more research?” Hollowell asked. “I might get promoted!”
And so, even in the enlightened world of academia, black faculty often find themselves working twice as hard for half as much. But they face other unique obstacles, as explained guest lecturer Keisha Bentley-Edwards, an Assistant Professor of General Internal Medicine Associate at Duke and the director of research and the director of the Health Equity Working Group at the Cook Center. When teaching, Bentley-Edwards explains, something like a course evaluation, which might be an afterthought for a white professor (and especially a white male professor), can become a cesspool of racist, sexist vitriol. Yet those evaluations, indeed, matter when determining tenure and career trajectories.
Moreover, while one might recognize the existing blindspots on a subject, that doesn’t mean one’s perspective will be valued. As she made forays into her field Bentley-Edwards recalls, holding up an almost entirely clear-beaded string, feeling some of her grad school professors weren’t invested in her. Long-focused on the intersections of race, health, and religiosity, she discovered a lack of nuance in many of these studies when it came to black people, where—in the rare sample that included them—black participants would be grouped under the fabricated umbrella of “The Black Church.” Said Bentley-Edwards, noting the roughly eighty thousand historically black churches in this country: “I’ve never seen a denomination that said ‘Black Church.”
“Even though we think about religion and faith as race-neutral,” she said, “the outcomes were indicating that faith was not race-neutral.” After struggling to put together the right team of researchers to earn funding, since coming to Duke Bentley-Edwards has found success in recent years, landing a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to examine, for example, the connections between religiosity and physical and mental health in black populations in particular.
When a student asked what drives her research, Bentley-Edwards noted her personal tie to the material—that it wasn’t until she left her local community for college that she learned a high infant mortality rate wasn’t universal, that she recognizes her family members in a lot of these religious studies. Such a connection isn’t unique; after all, everyone thinks the questions they answer are important.
But not everyone asks the same questions. Context is crucial, and different perspectives spark different inquiries which lead to different conclusions. Given her background, and how that differs from many in her field, it’s no surprise that Bentley-Edwards recognizes the need for additional inquiry—whether it’s investigating the varying rates of obesity across different denominations of black Christians, or understanding why the black infant mortality rate has, for the past thirty-five years, been twice the corresponding rate for whites. “A lot of times,” she said, “I get mad about what’s not known.”
Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity Duke University