On two occasions recently, I have heard an African-American female professor described as “mean” or “difficult” or someone who takes herself too seriously.
The first case involved a colleague who had been invited to join a trip overseas that was to be led by an African-American professor. While my colleague got along well with the trip leader, other faculty members had told her the woman was “difficult.”
Not long afterward, I spoke with a student who told me she was having a similar problem with a different African-American female professor. This professor came across as overly authoritative, frequently reminding the class of her status, the student told me: “She wants us to know that she is the professor and we are the students.” Apparently the professor was clear about the distinction between students and professors, and gave students specific instructions to address her as Dr. So-and-so.
By the time I heard the second complaint, I had nearly completed my first semester as a faculty member, and better understood the dynamics facing African-American female professors. I am willing to guess that the trip leader who was described as “difficult” had reached a point where she was fed up with her students’ and colleagues’ constantly questioning her and, in response, developed a tough skin and a cold disposition.
I took a moment on the last day of class to be candid with the student who had complained. I referred back to a lesson about health disparities and health behavior that I had used in my medical-sociology class. “Remember what we learned earlier this semester about health behaviors?” I asked.