“Why are you dressed so nicely?” a fellow graduate student asked me in passing, after noticing my collared shirt, slacks, and dress shoes. “Oh, I have to teach today,” I replied. He stopped and stared at me for a few moments, the confusion written plainly on his face. “As a Black man, students treat me with more respect when I dress up,” I explained. What I did not say was, “Our society’s current idea of professionalism is so intertwined with straight, white, masculinity that underrepresented people must go above and beyond or risk being seen as incompetent.”
I love teaching. However, for a Black man in a STEM department, it can be taxing, frustrating, and daunting to figure out how to present myself to undergraduate students. Taxing because I have to learn to interact with students who may have preconceived notions of my abilities. Frustrating because the number of colleagues who share my experiences or can offer me guidance is essentially zero. Daunting because for some of these students, their experience with me will likely shape how they view all people of color.
During my first year as a teaching assistant (TA), I noticed some students didn’t fully trust or respect me as an instructor. For example, one of my students emailed another TA to ask the very same question I’d answered for them earlier in the day. Another incident that got under my skin was when a student said I looked like rapper Wiz Khalifa, then proceeded to touch my dreadlocks. I felt embarrassed and violated, but I pretended their comment and action didn’t bother me. I feared that correcting the student would only present me as an “angry Black man.”
To garner more respect and confidence from my students, I started to diligently craft a mask that I thought would signal my professionalism. I wore nice clothes on teaching days and I reduced my use of Ebonics, an English dialect spoken by some Black Americans that I often used growing up. This mask seemed to work. I noticed my students were more engaged, asking questions and seeking me out for help. But the effort of maintaining my facade ultimately became unsustainable. Eventually, my mask cracked.
I was waiting in my office for a student, another Black man, to arrive to discuss his lab report. As I responded to emails, a rap album by Kendrick Lamar was playing. I was startled when the student exclaimed, “Yo! Trai, I didn’t know you got down with Kendrick.” This catalyzed an animated discussion about rappers, growing up in big cities, and people of color in STEM. My guard dropped, the Ebonics slipped out, and for a short period I was simply me. As I shifted our conversation to his assignment, he said offhandedly, “I wish you were more like this in class.” He wasn’t ill-intentioned, but his comment did prompt introspection.
I realized that although my “professional” mask appealed to my white students, it had unforeseen consequences. The mask I crafted was disingenuous and was alienating students of color while reinforcing the misconception that the only way to succeed is through cultural assimilation.
After this revelation, I discarded my mask. I continued to dress nicely because that’s something I enjoy. But I started to speak Ebonics more. I also decided to take time, at the beginning of every semester, to tell my students about my educational and cultural background. This serves a dual purpose: It outlines my teaching qualifications and demonstrates, to underrepresented students especially, my pride in my culture and upbringing.
The mask I crafted was disingenuous and was alienating students of color.
Admittedly, I’m not sure whether this is the best approach, and I do feel disheartened that I have to make a special effort to build credibility with my students. But I have noticed it has paid dividends. All my students have remained engaged, my underrepresented students seem empowered, and I no longer feel the need to put on an insincere mask.
I encourage my STEM colleagues to think seriously about who is more professional. Is it the man who wears button-down shirts or the person who is knowledgeable in their field? Is it the woman with straight hair or the person who leads productive discussions? A true professional doesn’t have a prescribed appearance. I’m a young Black man with tattoos and dreadlocks who is fluent in Ebonics. I’m also a behavioral ecologist, activist, and educator. I am a professional.