Thursday, August 28, 2008

white quotation of the week (alvin hall)

Six years ago, I founded a business that designs custom training programs and exam preparation courses for Wall Street firms. Wall Street, no matter what anyone says, is still not very integrated. People respond to me in the financial markets as a black person. And as a black teacher on Wall Street, I've encountered situations where people have judged me to be unqualified to teach because I was black.

In one of the oldest firms, for example, I had a particularly distressing experience. Even though my evaluations were excellent and many students considered me the best teacher in the company, I knew I had to be perfect in order to survive. I was perfect. My grammar was perfect. My clothes were perfect. My delivery was perfect. My grooming was perfect. I knew that when students first saw my black face I had a brief window of opportunity to convince them that I was worth listening to. I had to be "Mr. Perfection" in order for them to trust me.

Only after an initial period of trust building would I work black references into my lecture: I would quote Aretha Franklin songs, or use the word "ain't" or double negatives. Gradually my students would become more comfortable with my world. But first I had to start out being esssentially a black person who looks like white people, wants what white people want, needs what white people need, and speaks in a language that white people can hear.

What I have come to learn in the financial world is that white people really want black people to act "white," and being the black Alvin Hall was becoming a problem for me. The more this particular class was responding to my style, the more the white trainer became combative. He eventually insisted that I be removed from class. He said I was using "inappropriate" language. He was so incredibly threatened that I have not been allowed to work at that company since.

No matter how integrated their communities, white people have a fairly limited threshold for blackness. Even before I start a class, I must decide whether or not I need to come across as smart or successful. Only rarely can I be both at the same time. Sometimes white people are more comfortable with a black person who is smart and struggling than with one who is smart and flourishing. The latter combination can be frightening to them.

To survive in an "integrated" world, black people must always find ways of reinventing themselves in order to make sure that white people are comfortable with them. In the course of an all-day class with new students, I often metamorphose into six or seven different people to calm their fears and insecurities: the perfect, unthreatening 1950s Negro, like Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field; the suave 1960s black matinee idol; the 1950s homemaker, the June Cleaver type who reassures my older, white male students that they are smart and in command; the Eddie Murphy character, who piques their curiosity and perks them up with jokes.

If I sense that my white students are relaxing, I can inject more of myself into the lecture. If they are uptight, I'll have to cycle through those personae, tailoring them as I go along. I want my students to reach a comfort level that allows them to accept the knowledge that I can offer them. If I was totally Alvin Hall--Alvin Hall as a black man--they would not want to learn from me. I'm sure that many of them think I go home and listen to opera at night. Little do they know that I listen to rap music, too.

--Alvin Hall, as quoted in Maurice Berger's
White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness

For a description of similar experiences in a different educational setting, see Keith Barry's "Teaching While Black: Practicing American History at a Majority White College" (thanks Ortho!); see also Samah's explanation of demands that she deny herself amidst the white privilege of office culture, at Jamerican Muslima


  1. Yeah, Macon, black educators continue to play the role of a chameleon on a daily basis in front of an audience of white students. The students exercise the privileges of their skin by remaining the same, by forcing a black educator to change in order to reach them.

    Did you catch Kieth's Barry's "Teaching While Black: Practicing American History at a Majority White College" in the recent OAH Newsletter?

  2. Thanks ortho, yes, Barry's reported experience does directly parallel Hall's--here, for instance:

    My first teaching job was as an adjunct in the early 1990s at historically black Florida A&M University. Thank goodness I was able to build confidence as an instructor in that setting, because when I walked into class students already respected me. I did not have to earn their respect--I simply had to make sure that I did not lose what was naturally given. However, when I began teaching at the predominantly white community college where I currently work, I find that every semester I have to continually earn trust and respect from many of my students.

    I don't mean to be defeatist, but I wonder if white students have changed at all in this respect, in the dozen or so years since Berger's book was published.

  3. Macon, I wish to correct an embarrassing typo in my previous comment. I misspelled both the first and last names of the author of the article I linked. The author's name is Keith Berry, not "Kieth Barry," as I erroneously typed.

    I don't mean to be defeatist, but from my personal observations, not much has changed. The middle-class-white-male educator enjoys an easier time in front of the classroom than his female colleagues, and his colleagues of color. Thanks to the privileges of his class, race, and gender he readily commands the respect of his audience.

  4. Sometimes, it makes me wonder, since [it seems that] we blacks are not going to be accepted anyway--as per this author's essay--no matter how much shape-shifting we do, why don't we just be ourselves from the get-go? And see how that works?

  5. why don't we just be ourselves from the get-go? And see how that works?
    Needs vs. Wants and those who control access makes me think it wouldn't.

    I've never thought of this perspective (of the professor). I've never thought to doubt my teachers (until they say/do something to make me think otherwise, of course). I suppose it's a lot like other situations in other occupations.

  6. Wow...that's deep stuff.

  7. lord, yes. when i taught, i pulled out the debbie allen character from Fame, the sassy black best girl friend from Ally McBeal, and a black version of the Paper Chase professor - all to make the white undergrads relax.

    but the galling this was being forced to do pretty much the same thing with my white advisors or department peers - folks who, theoretically, should have known better.

    it all goes back to one of your earliest posts: White people think they are trustworthy.

    people of color wouldn't have to go through all this role playing if they were.

  8. We Wear the Mask

    We wear the mask that grins and lies,
    It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
    This debt we pay to human guile;
    With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
    And mouth with myriad subtleties.

    Why should the world be over-wise,
    In counting all our tears and sighs?
    Nay, let them only see us, while
    We wear the mask.

    We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
    To thee from tortured souls arise.
    We sing, but oh the clay is vile
    Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
    But let the world dream otherwise,
    We wear the mask!

    by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
    (The above poem appeared in Dunbar's first professionally published volume, Lyrics of Lowly Life, in 1896 by Dodd, Mead, and Company.)


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