Being Black and writing something during Black History isn’t exactly easy. It’s conflicting. On one hand, honestly, I just want to celebrate our achievements and sprinkle Black Joy everywhere I go this month. On the other hand, I simply can’t ignore that our education system wasn’t intended for Black students, and racism is still prevalent. Consequently, there are still barriers that impede access and opportunity for students of color.
As I spent time thinking about what to write, I was reminded of this quote from Patrisse Cullors, a founder of the Black Lives Matter movement: “We celebrate despite the obstacles we face.”
And we have a LOT to celebrate.
We are moving forward—despite the obstacles that we face, and that we have faced for generations.
This year the much-anticipated report from NACAC and NAFSAA, titled “Toward a More Equitable Future for Postsecondary Access,” focused admissions recommendations on the implications for Black students, citing “the need for a historical reckoning related to the treatment of Black Americans that reached a crescendo in 2020” and recommends that financial aid offices “encourage an environment where implicit biases are explored and acknowledged in order to combat behavior and practices that have perpetuated systemic racism.”
But even before this report, many admissions and financial aid offices have acknowledged that the entire enrollment process is complex. These offices have also begun to invest in updating processes to address policies that specifically create barriers and are harmful to Black students and other historically excluded groups.
We celebrate the acknowledgment that there is work to be done—and we move forward to hold these practices accountable.
Many of us at this point know what it means to roll up our sleeves, identify a need in our sphere of influence and begin to do the work.
For example, we are all probably aware that one barrier to enrollment that disproportionately impacts a number of Black students is verification selection during the financial aid process. While this is standard in every financial aid office in America, it can be extremely taxing on students. It forces students to jump through hoops to prove they are poor. Oftentimes it constitutes proof that either makes or breaks a student’s college-going dreams. Systemic financial trauma is real for students—and verification processes that ask them not only to re-live it but to prove it repeatedly, do not move students forward – mentally or academically.
Changes to unjust processes are needed, but we can’t just “simplify” the financial aid process.
We must also understand the lack of considerations and biases that drove the complexity of the process, or we will forever treat the symptoms instead of attacking the root. So, as you think about a path forward, specifically regarding the needs of Black and other historically excluded students, you must first do the hard work. Courageously explore what beliefs your institution holds that drive behavior and decisions that ultimately are ingrained in practices and processes. It’s critical to understand implicit bias.
The term “implicit bias” gets thrown around a lot, but I rarely hear it explained. Essentially, it means that thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are “implicit” if you are unaware of them or mistaken about their nature. The term “implicit bias” describes when we have attitudes towards people or associate stereotypes with them without our conscious knowledge. We ALL have implicit biases. These biases develop and evolve throughout our lives and are based on our own lived experiences and influences around us. This matters during Black History Month because it is important to acknowledge that we simply can’t escape the influences and consequences of our nation’s history. And despite all our best efforts, we all have influences and are likely to act on our biases without even realizing it.
As we think about our respective roles in higher ed, neutrality is a huge part of how we help students, as we have both the honor and responsibility to impact the trajectory of students’ lives through the work that we do. If we don’t acknowledge and dismantle the impact of implicit bias in our workspaces, we risk negatively affecting the academic futures of the students who rely on us. So, what can we do during Black History Month and beyond?
Learn. Start understanding the implicit biases of your institutions so you can positively impact your workspace. If you’re not sure where to start, check out NASFAA’s Implicit Bias Toolkit. One of the recommendations is to take the Harvard Project Implicit Bias Test, which provides an opportunity for self-understanding around our own individual biases.
Support. Support BHM activities happening on your campus. Showing up is important. Consider reaching out to organizations on campus that are committed to equity and justice. Learn more about their initiatives and think about how you can show support within your realm of influence.
Celebrate. Enjoy this month to the fullest! Watch an uplifting movie, listen to upbeat tunes from Black artists across genres and enjoy delicious food cooked with love, joy and soul.
In closing, when we each do our own work, we equip ourselves with the tools we need to address systemic barriers that have disproportionately impacted Black students, we can celebrate the path forward for all students. I’ll leave you with a saying from my grandmother: “Rising tides lift all boats.”