Editor’s note

About this series

For this fifth year of The Seattle Times Student Voices project, we invited students from Washington public high schools and colleges to work with Education Lab to write about issues of educational equity. This essay by Mawahib Ismail is the sixth in the 2021 series. Visit http://st.news/studentvoices2021 to learn more about the student writers and read other essays in this series as they are published.

I am a Black Muslim woman and throughout my years in education, I have had one Black teacher. I can only speak for myself here and tell you that it is the hardest obstacle I have had to go through. Every day there is a new microaggression to face. For years, I endured classmates calling me slurs without a single teacher protecting me. During my whole time at Shorecrest High School in Shoreline, I never had a single teacher who looked like me, who could understand me. Black teachers are rare to see and Black teachers in Washington state are even rarer. A database from the Washington state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction shows that 86.8% of the teachers in Washington are white, while 1.5% of educators are Black.

I am studying social sciences at the University of Washington and I can see that after all these years of education, not much has changed. When I ask my Washington state friends how many Black educators they have had, they usually say one or none. In predominantly white institutions (PWIs) like the UW, it can be incredibly difficult to be a Black student and go through your entire college career without having one Black professor. 

I do not speak for the Black community. I speak for myself as a Black person. I know if there were more Black faculty in PWIs that my college experience would be better. I wouldn’t have to deal with constant ignorance of non-Black faculty speaking on Black issues that they have no authority on. I would have more access to mentors and faculty who can show me what it would be like to work in the fields I am majoring in as a Black person, and who would know how to advocate for me and create a more inclusive and safe space for their Black students. But that can’t happen unless the administrations of PWIs change the culture of their campuses to make it a more safe, productive environment for Black staff.

In spring 2020, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and many other African Americans led to the summer uprisings that took place to demand social justice and equity in this country, and student organizations in my university took part in that. Hiring more Black faculty was among the seven demands the UW Black Student Union made of the administration. The UW employs just 99 Black faculty members, representing about 2% of the 4,760 faculty workforce, according to a 2020 fact sheet from the university. The vast majority – 3,191 faculty members, according to the fact sheet – are white. This imbalance in staffing can create incredibly uncomfortable dynamics that generate a lack of trust and understanding between Black students and predominantly white staff.

“There have been many times where I had to correct non-Black professors as they were whitewashing African history, and that happens all the time,” said Mahilet Mesfin, an international studies major and UW Black Student Union president. “When Black students are in space[s] where they have to constantly correct non-Black professors and students, specifically about Black topics, that can create burnout and exhaustion so easily.”

Advertising

As Black students, we often find ourselves serving as students and teachers when we shouldn’t have to. Black students all over the country want change now. We want to see more Black faculty. To make that change, Mesfin emphasized the need for universities to focus on retention as well as hiring.

“Black professors and faculty are so unhappy and feel lonely with their experience on campuses that they don’t stay,” she said. 

I honestly had never thought about it in this way before. Black faculty are put in the same tense environment as Black students. The danger for faculty is that if they speak out in the unsafe environments they are in, their jobs could be at stake. 

I had the pleasure of meeting UW Diversity Officer Rickey Hall to talk about the importance of culture, community and representation of faculty on campus. 

“We should always be in recruitment mode, that it’s not only leadership but every college and department needs to stay committed to diversity always,” he said. “It has to be a culture shift. I truly believe that diversity, equity and inclusion leads to innovations and innovations lead to breakthroughs.” 

It has been a year since the UW Black Student Union and UW Black Lives Matter group made seven demands to create a more inclusive campus, and they still have not been met. Supporting these organizations and spreading awareness about these demands is a task anyone can do. A lot has happened since last summer’s uprisings, but we as a community need to put our foot on the gas and continue to apply pressure until change happens.

There are amazing programs in place to recruit high school students from underrepresented communities to the UW. But what is it worth if once these students arrive on campus they don’t see themselves represented at all by their professors? Students of color who come to this renowned and well-funded institution might not find a mentor or professor who can guide them as they navigate a predominantly white space. 

I hope the UW and all predominantly white institutions stay committed to diversity and inclusion for students and faculty alike. To witness so much violence against Black people over the past year and still have to go to class every day with nobody around to understand the difficulty that we went through was the hardest time to go through as a student. If there were more Black faculty, then future Black students and staff would know that they are not alone, that there are people on campus who can relate to them and share a level of understanding. The presence of more Black faculty can and will change so many students’ lives for the better.