Closson: Having professors who look like us can be invaluable to students of color

Troy Closson, Opinion Editor

This is my fifth quarter on campus. And prior to this one, I only had two black professors during my time here. Within my journalism major, the number was zero.

Thankfully, this winter been a little different. I’m only taking three classes and two of them — both Medill classes — are taught by black faculty members. And I didn’t realize how much of a difference that would ultimately make.

Even before coming to college, my classes were rarely led by black teachers. Though I wasn’t oblivious to that issue back then, my high school was much more racially diverse than Northwestern. It didn’t feel like such a pressing issue because so much more of the student community was black in the first place. Coming to this campus, that changed. Having professors who look like me almost means more now, and each one has been significant.

Some of this lies in the fact that there are obvious impacts when students of color have professors who look like them. I’m often one of a few — or the only — black students in most classes here. Multiple times, I’ve felt like when professors have expected me to speak up or represent my race when talking about topics that I’d supposedly have knowledge about because I’m black. And in my experience, faculty members of color often have a stronger cultural competency than others. Last quarter, the professor of my psychology class, who is white, used the N-word when quoting an interview with a black research participant. I immediately felt uncomfortable. While he later said he was only trying to convey the same experience, I thought my professor could’ve easily communicated his point without needing to say it. With black faculty members, I don’t have to deal with that.

But more deeply, having black Medill professors this quarter has shown me the importance of the opportunity to learn from people who look like you. Even this early in the quarter, I’ve already been able to talk with them about navigating the lack of diversity in newsrooms and dealing with sources who have an issue with my race. Yes, I could learn some of the same reporting techniques or interviewing skills from anyone — but that can’t be completely removed from my identity. My experiences in journalism will inherently be different from those of my white professors, and being able to learn from black faculty members provides invaluable knowledge beyond what others could give.

A few years ago, conversations arose surrounding additional University funding for Counseling and Psychological Services to hire staff members of color who could better grasp and relate to the challenges students of color have on campus. It wasn’t that other CAPS counselors weren’t qualified or couldn’t do their jobs, but that a full understanding of certain experiences isn’t always accessible when you don’t share the same identity. Having black professors and faculty members is no different. It’s just not the same learning skills that will apply to your career when the person teaching them has no context for what you’ll actually experience. What I learn in other classes is obviously valuable, but when my professors are black, what I learn often holds a different significance.

And to be clear, this doesn’t solely apply to black students and professors. This week, the Latinx Asian American Collective wrote a letter to The Daily discussing how simply providing departmental status to the Asian American Studies Program and the Latina and Latino Studies Program could have a great impact by allowing faculty in those programs more time to devote to students. I’m sure many students would benefit from having more people who look like them teach classes. But even just within Medill, faculty of color are few and far between. And that has to change.

So often, it can feel like NU administration is confused about or doesn’t understand how to improve marginalized students’ experiences. For people of color, having more professors and faculty members who share our identities would go a long way to creating spaces where students can feel fully included and able to participate. And even beyond students’ discomfort in classrooms, creating more faculty diversity would provide access to unique perspectives that many students just can’t get from their white professors.

Troy Closson is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.