During a two-week faculty development trip to Senegal, Africa, I experienced a new culture, embraced my ancestral lineage, and made new colleagues along the way. I was grateful to be one of the 15 Minority Serving Institution (MSI) faculty members selected from universities and colleges across the United States. We participated in daily lectures on migration, religion, and diversity. We also immersed ourselves in the culture by touring the amazing historical sites, traveling up the coast, eating fine cuisine, and engaging with the Senegalese community. From my many experiences traveling with groups abroad, I’ve learned that conflict is never far away. Discriminatory remarks and actions from white faculty transpired during our time in Africa. Many of the comments can be deemed by some as harmless however, they were continuously called out by Black faculty members as being harmful and in many ways, steeped in prejudice.
The Framework for School Age Care in Australia defines cultural competency as the ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people across cultures. Cultural competence encompasses being aware of one’s own worldview by developing positive attitudes towards cultural differences and gaining knowledge of different cultural practices and perspectives. Faculty from MSIs should be required to undergo training and evaluations on their ability to understand and execute cultural competency. While this trip was miles away from a classroom setting, it demonstrates a need for global and cultural competency training at MSIs.
To better expound on the need for global and cultural competency training of MSI faculty, I have provided a few examples from my Senegal trip. When we arrived at Gorée Island, a sacred space where enslaved Africans were held before being shipped across the Atlantic world, I sensed insensitivity from others on the trip. Before touring the island an activity was held to discuss the themes of racism, privilege, and identity. The questions were: What do you think about more and least when you’re in the US? What do you think about more and least when you’re in Senegal? The responses varied from sexual orientation and disability to race and religion. One white faculty member said, “On this trip, for the first time I feel like a minority.” A Black woman faculty member quickly responded by saying, “You’ve felt this way for seventeen days but I’ve been feeling it my entire life.”
When the topic of race was raised, the victimization and attention toward personal situations derailed the conversation. What happens when race becomes a topic in the classroom? There needs to be a bigger push for global and cultural competency training at MSIs, especially in light of the current racist and white supremacist actions spewing across the nation. In one lecture on women’s issues, a white faculty member asked the lecturer about the HIV rate in Senegal. She was immediately shut down by a faculty member who informed her that it was a racist question and wrong for her to assume that because we were in Africa that asking about HIV is an appropriate question. I should also note that the HIV rate in the U.S. is higher than Senegal’s.
During my first semester as a professor, my university held a cultural competency activity in the faculty meeting. I thought this was so profound and needed. Not only because of the students we’re educating but our collegiality as well. For instance, a male faculty member on the trip decided to operate in his white male privilege and ask the assistant leader, who is Black, if he could sit down while giving his final presentation. When she responded no, he said, “Well I’m just going to do it from here, if that’s fine,” and remained seated.
There were even questions being asked to our Senegalese hosts who studied in the U.S., such as, “Was it hard for you to learn English in America?” Again, this may be seen as harmless however, these westernized assumptions are highly problematic. I still have a difficult time believing all that occurred on our trip. As a Black woman who attended two historically Black universities, and currently teaches at a Predominantly Black Institution (PBI), I had never experienced such blatant oblivion and ignorance from faculty. It is even more troubling that these professors teach history and emphasized that they teach Black history courses because “no one is applying,” meaning that no Black faculty are applying. I politely offered my assistance by suggesting they send me job announcements to share with my history network.
Furthermore, I hope MSIs will consider the following questions when training faculty on global competence: How are faculty being trained on global engagement and study abroad? How is race being taught at MSIs? How do we ensure the cultural competency of faculty when abroad? When race is taught, how do professors address the topic outside of a U.S. context globally? In what ways are we ensuring that MSI faculty adopt culturally-responsive pedagogy in the classroom? By no means am I implying that Black faculty or faculty of color always get it right, however, because of our historical pasts we have a more sensitive approach. We understand the extent of how offense can be taken when asking or emphasizing certain questions and actions. We should develop better strategies to reach students in the classroom that doesn’t involve asking the one Black student how he/she feels about slavery or singling out students to teach other students on their history. One can only hope that the faculty members from our amazing trip learned from that experience and implemented a changed mindset once arriving back to their institutions.
Kimberly F. Monroe is a native of Lake Charles, La. She is currently an Assistant Professor (tenure track) of African Diaspora history at Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC.