In March of 2020, famed daredevil Nik Wallenda completed the astonishing feat of walking on a tightrope stretched out across an active Volcano crater in Nicaragua. He stood roughly 2,100 feet above volcanic magma, dawning goggles, a balance beam, and a respirator to protect him from fumes. I wondered what went through his head as he methodically and carefully placed step after step on the rope, which was less than two inches wide! At one point, he even removed his goggles to see better because the elevated temperature blurred his vision. In an interview right before traversing the nicknamed “Mouth of Hell,” Wallenda exclaimed, “I could fall to my death. It is just the reality of what I do.”1
In academia, each day can be reflective of balancing teaching, research, and service responsibilities. New classes require new prep, which means more time focused on teaching. Whereas new projects may require more time spent on reading and writing manuscripts. Hidden within these tasks are the copious amount of service responsibilities such as advising students, running a department, serving on committees, and engaging in professional service outside of the university. If beginning the tightrope walk symbolizes the start of these roles and responsibilities, then it is logical to conceptualize the final step as the acclaimed prize – tenure.
Being a faculty member in Christian higher education can feel very much like a tightrope walk. Even more so, walking on a tightrope under Wallenda’s particular conditions could be reflective of the experiences of faculty of color. The heating conditions of teaching and service can be overconsuming at times. I am responsible to take on service roles (sometimes beyond what is mandated), even though such responsibilities are not the primary standard to evaluate whether I earn tenure. Faculty of color are often asked to teach the course centered on diversity and social justice (presumably because of lived expertise), despite those courses having the lowest scores from student evaluations, further jeopardizing one’s tenure. However, there can be a simultaneous pull to teach said course because of the saliency of topics around dismantling racism, inequity, and injustice. Generally, these courses are taught to a majority White student population, meaning the heat of students’ ire on being challenged in their racial privilege rises. Each step then must be taken carefully if I am to make it to the other side.
The added component of integrating my faith into these conditions creates another. Integrating my faith into teaching must be done in a way that is authentic to my own experience but not to the extent that it infringes my students’ beliefs. The temperature is rising steadily, and I am not sure if I have the balance down all the time. How then do I integrate a faith (nondenominational Christian) that is both equally salient to my values and identities as a Black man, but is also loaded with the influences of being largely White and evangelical? I am called to teach about the systemic influences of privilege and racism, and yet quite often, evangelical Christianity has a staunch history of perpetuating systemic injustice and racial inequality. Incorporating Christianity into teaching becomes this tense task rather than authentic experience. The added component that my profession (counseling) teaches me not to impose my values on my students, the integration process often feels more inauthentic to my values and ethics. Like Wallenda, if not careful, the fumes will overwhelm me.
Wallenda’s comments “It’s just the nature of what I do,” struck a particular chord with me. There is a resolution that striving for tenure means I signed up for this balancing act rendering folks to conclude I am ultimately responsible whether I fall. This is part of the mental gymnastics I experience navigating academia. When teaching about diversity and social justice, there is a temptation to adjust my curriculum for the sake of making my White students; most of my students, feel comfortable and thus give favorable student evaluations. However, in doing so, it feels as if I must water down or tame my course material to gloss over the real traumatic issues for which White supremacy and White normative cultural and political power are responsible.
Teaching about diversity and social justice often feels like the nature of what I do. Especially given that the subject matter is usually centered on learning about the experiences of non-White folks, through the lens of White folks. I see this play out in my White students distancing from seeing themselves as racialized beings. Rather than engage or listen to the lived experiences of their students and faculty, I am met with trite, resistant phrases such as “I don’t see color” or “White privilege is racist.” These responses in essence fight against not only my lived experiences as a Black man, but also uphold the norms of White culture and political dominance and the injustices (sometimes even unconscious) that come with it . Many times, these reactions have me question whether to turn around on the tightrope or to persist forward to the end.
It’s simple. My humanity and that of fellow marginalized folks should not be up for debate. The challenge then is to teach in a way to honor the developmental growth and cultivate curiosity of students in engaging these issues. This can begin with simply naming the pervasiveness of White cultural and political dominance (and the systems this dominance produced). However, by simply naming it, I am also asking my White students and peers to connect their own identities to that issue. When met with the inevitable pushback from these peers and colleagues, I feel as if I am stumbling on my tightrope. I guess I can chalk that up to the nature of what I do. Some days, this walk feels more mental than it is physical. However, the situation remains, the rope must be walked. I must get to the other side, despite the current conditions. That…is my resolve.
- Staff. ‘I could fall to my death:’ tightrope walker Wallenda readies to cross active volcano. February 27th, 2020, Reuters. Retrieved: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-wallenda-volcano/i-could-fall-to-my-death-tightrope-walker-wallenda-readies-to-cross-active-volcano-idUSKCN20L3BJ