Surviving Whiteness and White People: The Coping Strategies of Black, Entry-Level Student Affairs Professionals

Robin Phelps-Ward, Ed.D.

Clemson University

Jeff Kenney, Ph.D.

Oregon State University


Though Whiteness permeates all United States colleges and universities, a concerted effort in postsecondary education to shatter White institutional presence and nurture inclusive and equitable environments for Black student affairs professionals does not exist. This qualitative study focuses on the narratives of three Black, entry-level student affairs professionals who share their experiences of working at a large predominantly White institution in the southeast of the United States. Through an interpretive phenomenological analysis, we ask the following research question: What does it mean to survive Whiteness as a Black, entry-level student affairs professional at a predominantly White institution? We answer this question by sharing descriptive profiles of each professional detailing their experiences engaging connection, compartmentalization, and community. Finally, we encourage campus leaders to address issues of racism and inequity on institutional, individual, and ideological levels to more effectively and genuinely retain, empower, and celebrate the knowledge, experiences, and contributions of all Black staff and faculty in postsecondary education.

Keywords: black professionals, student affairs, whiteness

On March 25, 2016 members of the Black Student Affairs Professionals Facebook group initiated #BLKSAPBlackOut. This social media movement flooded the Student Affairs Professionals Facebook group with hundreds of posts, multimedia, and comments. The culminating response to the hashtag led to an outpouring of narratives from Black student affairs professionals sharing experiences of racism, isolation, marginalization, and tokenization in their roles on college campuses across the country. One professional, Clyde Barnett III, wrote:

Anyone else tired of reintroducing yourself to colleagues you’ve already met and worked on projects/committees with? I am! I could never hear, “Oh, yeah, that’s right you work over there. I’m so sorry!” ever again and it would be too soon. What about walking by, looking right past you, and not speaking at all as if you are completely invisible? (personal communication, March 25, 2016)

Whether through social media, higher education scholarship, or personal interactions, Black student affairs professionals continue to discuss the reality of working on college campuses as a means to increase the awareness and ability of their White and non-Black counterparts to address issues of racism and inequity.

Among those sharing their stories are Black, entry-level student affairs professionals who are uniquely positioned to inspire students to pursue a career in student affairs and influence the future of the developing field. All leaders and scholars within postsecondary education should care about the experiences of Black, entry-level student affairs professionals because their experiences of racism, prejudice, lack of quality mentorship, discrimination, exclusion, and tokenism can and do negatively affect their retention, satisfaction, and belonging (Husband, 2016; Louis & Freeman, 2015; West, 2017a). Such outcomes can only lead to unfavorable consequences for the evolving demographic of college students who require a diverse composition of student affairs professionals to support their development, retention, and success (Harper & Quaye, 2009). Through our study, we aim to explore the unique experiences of professionals committed to student affairs work whilst navigating racist campus climates.

This qualitative study focuses on the narratives of three Black, entry-level student affairs professionals, Angela, Bernard, and Natalie (pseudonyms), who share their experiences of working at a large predominantly White institution (PWI) in the southeast of the United States. Through an interpretive phenomenological analysis, we ask the following research question: What does it mean to survive Whiteness as a Black, entry-level student affairs professional at a predominantly White institution? We answer this question by sharing descriptive profiles of each professional detailing their experiences as student affairs professionals and finish with specific strategies they employ to endure their roles on campus. Angela, Bernard, and Natalie grapple with issues of faux belonging, surviving Whiteness and White privilege, as well as the trauma of well-meaning/well-intentioned White people. We conclude this paper with tangible recommendations for postsecondary leaders as they strive to retain, empower, and celebrate the knowledge, experiences, and contributions of Black staff and faculty. Black Staff and Administrators in the Academy

Although a significant body of literature exists documenting the racism Black faculty experience within predominantly White colleges and universities in the United States (Griffin, Ward, & Phillips, 2014; McCray, 2011; Patton & Catching, 2009), much less is known about Black staff and administrators who experience such racism in differing organizational and hierarchical contexts. The literature dedicated to Black staff and administrators remains scant and focuses predominantly on upper-level administrators. Within the literature focused on Black administrators’, higher education scholars have addressed the discrimination, isolation, and marginalization they experience as well as their strategies for thriving despite working within toxic campus climates (Gardner, Barrett, & Pearson, 2014; West, 2017b). This body of scholarship calls attention to the need for increased representation of Black administrators, quality mentorship, and pathways to upper-level administrative positions (Banks, Hopps, & Briggs, 2018; Clayborne & Hamrick, 2007; Flowers, 2003; Gardner et al., 2014; Holmes, 2003; Jackson & O’Callaghan, 2011; West, 2017b; Wolfe & Dilworth, 2015).

Within their study of the adjustment, institutional, and career factors connected to the success of African American student affairs administrators, Gardner et al. (2014) found several enablers and barriers of success. Within their semi-structured interviews with 10 men and 4 women, they found that mentorship (same race and cross-race), a healthy self-image, social network and family support, institutional commitment to diversity, and professional preparation played a significant role in their success as vice chancellors, associate vice presidents, directors, and assistant directors. Conversely, perceptions of prejudice, feelings of separateness or difference, discrimination, and lack of advancement opportunities (a clear track for advancement) posed major barriers to their success. Based on their findings, Gardner et al. (2014) encouraged leaders at PWIs to “find ways to promote professionals from within their existing staffs” (p. 248). Further, the authors called for increased efforts in the form of tangible resources (e.g., funding) to foster an institutional commitment to diversity in order to support the work of recruiting and retaining racially marginalized student affairs professionals.

While Gardner et al.’s (2014) work focused on factors connected to the success of Black administrators, West (2017b) engaged an intrinsic case study to examine a program designed to support Black women student affairs administrators – the African American Women’s Summit (AAWS), held as a pre-conference event at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators annual conference. Within the study, West (2017b) articulated the necessity of such programming and the use of Black feminist thought (Collins, 2000) to center Black women and support their ability to navigate PWIs. The program included Black women from a variety of institutional types and included conversations of preserving the legacy of the AAWS, campus climate, empowerment, dealing with racism, sexism, homophobia, marginalization, and isolation. Ultimately, West (2017b) found that collaboration amongst Black women and access to spaces for collaboration (via panels, sister circles, presentations, and other modalities) represented a multifaceted process that possesses the unique opportunity to mitigate some of the adversities Black women face in academia (specifically at PWIs). West’s (2017b) study illuminates the intersections of racism and sexism Black women student affairs administrators face with special consideration to a nationally based program.

Although much is known about Black administrators’ experiences at PWIs, their navigational strategies, support mechanisms, and career paths, significantly less is known about the experiences of Black staff in entry and mid-level positions. This group of college and university employees includes program coordinators, campus custodians, residence directors, admissions counselors, administrative assistants, and numerous additional professionals who fuel the work of the academy. Apart from a few studies examining competencies necessary for new student affairs professionals and experiences of recent student affairs graduates (Burkard, Cole, Ott, & Stoflet, 2005; Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008), minimal research exists dedicated to the experiences of entry-level student affairs professionals. Further, the higher education and student affairs literature does not yet include explorations of the experiences of Black, entrylevel student affairs professionals who are inarguably numerically underrepresented at PWIs while experiencing daily racial microaggressions (among additional forms of oppression) given multiple intersecting identities. We aim to add to the literature devoted not only to exploring the experiences of Black, entry-level student affairs professionals, but their strategies for survival.

Critical Whiteness Studies

To theoretically ground our analysis and draw attention to the racist experiences of Black, entry-level student affairs professionals, we engage critical Whiteness studies (CWS) as a theoretical framework. CWS is an increasing and expansive scholarly project which centers the interrogation of Whiteness in the examination of racism (Gillborn, 2005; Gusa, 2010; Leonardo, 2009), as opposed to the emphasis on the racialized “other” (Applebaum, 2016). Several objectives thread the CWS discourse including the visibility, distinction, confrontation, and deliberation of Whiteness. Making Whiteness visible (Applebaum, 2016; Gillborn, 2005) and “strange” (interrogating the construct of whiteness) (Dyer, 1997, p. 4), requires an interruption to a pervasive epistemology of ignorance, commonly referred to as color blindness (Bonilla-Silva, 2003; Mills, 1997). CWS scholars also wrestle with the distinction between Whiteness and White people and emphasizes the performativity and social construction of Whiteness as the object of examination (Gillborn, 2005). When White people are heterogeneous, a distinct worldview with an ontological and epistemological orientation exists (Gusa, 2010). As Gusa (2010) notes, White notions of individualism, self-reliance, independence and, ultimately, meritocracy are examined, as “meritocracy and individualism legitimize the hierarchical and disproportionate concentration of White wealth and power in American society” (p. 469). CWS theorizing also provides scholars with a framework to confront the structures of White supremacy (Applebaum, 2016). To understand the structural nature of White supremacy, Mills (1998) offers the comparison of White supremacy’s relationship to race as analogous to patriarchy’s relationship with gender and heteronormativity’s relationship with sexuality. The nature of this confrontation is a point of consternation and deliberation. Thus, the goals and approaches of CWS are many. Nayak (2007) identified three distinct, but not mutually exclusive paradigms, through which CWS are enacted. The abolition paradigm is concerned with class and labor relations and seeks to dismantle and eliminate Whiteness (Nayak, 2007). The deconstruction paradigm is a postmodern project that seeks to investigate the reproduction of Whiteness outside of the domain of labor (Nayak, 2007). The rethinking paradigm is a psychoanalytic approach that engages Whiteness as an issue of identity, emotion, and consciousness and intervenes the irrational fears and desires associated with Whiteness (Nayak, 2007). These paradigms draw from one another and exist in tension, and formulate their premise that Whiteness is a dynamic invention, a social standard linked with privilege and cultivated in American history – the destruction of which would improve modern society.

This study is informed by the distinct vein of CWS that attends to issues of racism in education. The CWS educational scholars analyze the roles of racism in education and problematizes race neutral policies and practices ultimately serving to reproduce White supremacy (Gilborn, 2005). We found Gusa’s (2010) White institutional presence (WIP) framework particularly useful, as we derived meaning of our participants’ survival at a PWI. Gusa’s framework asserts that PWIs do not have to be explicitly racist to create hostile environments for People of Color (Gusa, 2010). There is demonstrable evidence of the harmful effects of adverse campus racial climate on students, faculty, and staff (Gusa, 2010). Such climate factors include perceptions of racial tension, experiences with prejudice and discrimination, and perceptions of racialized privilege (Gusa, 2010). Gusa (2010) provides four ideological attributes of WIP: White ascendancy, monoculturalism, White estrangement, and White blindness (obfuscation). White ascendancy reflects the thinking and behaviors that arise from White power and privilege, and the subsequent reproductions of White domination (Gusa, 2010). Monoculturalism names the implications of a single scholarly worldview that privileges White ways of knowledge and reality while limiting the possibilities of Black policy, curriculum, inquiry, research methodology, and pedagogy. White estrangement adheres to the maintenance of White supremacy through social racial isolation via structural barriers and culturally imposed segregation (Gusa, 2010). Lastly, White obfuscation preserves and protects White supremacy by exploiting progressive notions of color blindness, making race invisible and immaterial (Gusa, 2010). Our study, like WIP, focuses on the White normative messages and practices that are exchanged within the academic milieu (and how when) these messages and practices remain subtle, nebulous, and unnamed, they potentially harm the well-being, self-esteem, and academic success of those who do not share the norms of White culture. (Gusa, 2010, p. 471)

Our use of WIP as a theoretical framework to focus on aspects of White ascendency, monoculturalism, estrangement, and obfuscation not only provide us a lens to critically examine racism through a Whiteness studies lens, the framework provides us with ample opportunity to articulate the insidious nature of Whiteness often overlooked.

Research Design

The work of this study develops as a continuation of a larger research study carried out in 2016 at a large, PWI in the Southeast. In this larger study, we asked 22 self-identified Black faculty and staff to reflect on their varied experiences following an incident of student-led, race-centered campus activism. This display of campus activism manifested in a march throughout campus and sit-in both inside and outside a campus administrative building. The activism was sparked by a racist epithet, a perceived lack of administrative support for Students of Color, and the governing board’s blocking of policies to rename campus monuments honoring known historical racists. This sit-in lasted more than a week and peaked with student arrests garnering local and national media attention. Though led by students, the combined demonstrations received support from students, faculty, and staff of various backgrounds. During interviews with us (a Black woman assistant professor and a White man doctoral student), we facilitated one-on-one conversations asking the participants to walk us through their experience with the campus protests and how the event related to their sense of belonging.

For the purposes of this study, we examined the narratives of three Black professionals in entrylevel roles engaged in student affairs work. The three professionals represented in this study both witnessed and participated in the campus activism at varying levels from the respective positions on campus. We engaged interpretive phenomenological analysis (Smith, Larkin, & Flowers, 2009) to guide our study. Interpretive phenomenological analysis is a qualitative method that centers the particular and the collective to gain the essence of an experience while allowing researchers to be descriptive and interpretive (Smith, Larkin, & Flowers, 2009). Such flexibility allows researchers to not only share the stories of the individuals and how they survived and coped during the campus activism, but to highlight the similarities across small groups as well. Thus, we begin the findings section with a discussion of each professional within the study and move to the ways in which the three overlap in their experiences of navigating Whiteness at a PWI.

Data Analysis

Using Charmaz’s (2006) coding scheme as an organizational strategy, we engaged in data analysis in five phases. In the first phase, we used initial coding to analyze all of the data line-by-line from each transcript noting our interpretations while comparing cases and revising ideas as we went along based on our conversations with each other. In the second phase, we discussed codes generated from the initial round and consolidated the codes for the next phase based on the frequent and information-rich codes generated from our researcher memos. These codes (e.g., anger, hope, isolation, activist identity, self-preservation, etc.) related mostly to participants’ emotions following the sit-in (the narratives of how they coped emotionally during this period, and their discussions of the temporal, geographic, and institutional context tied to the event). For the third phase, we created a codebook and included large clusters of codes (i.e., activism, communication, racism at the university, determinants of belonging, and cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses to student activism). Following this third round of coding, we met to begin discussing emergent themes. We followed up with participants for a member check process that took the form of two focus groups; eight participants joined. We shared the emerging themes we identified and asked participants what they believed was missing or misinterpreted. Though we recognize not all participants were able to engage in this member check process, we believe this strategy for establishing the trustworthiness of the research allowed interested participants a chance to expound on their narratives and identify gaps they perceived. We used data from the focus groups to clarify and add detail to the themes we identified.


Lastly, to aid the present study, we re-read the transcripts for the three professionals, met to discuss overarching themes of surviving Whiteness and White institutional presence, and reached a consensus on the essence of how navigating Whiteness manifested for each participant from their standpoint. Below we include a general descriptive table to highlight the rank, primary division, tenure, and alumni status of each participant. Following the descriptive summary of each participant, we offer our findings – our interpretation of the essence of surviving Whiteness for each participant. Finally, we discuss our conclusions based on a CWS theoretical perspective and offer strategies for university leaders cultivating spaces for Black people in the academy.

Table 1

Name (pseudonym)DivisionRankYrs. w/InstitutionAlumni Status
 AngelaStudent AffairsUnclassified, Entry1-5  
 BernardStudent AffairsUnclassified, Entry1-5  
 NatalieAcademic AffairsClassified, Entry-Middle11-15Alum 


Natalie: Compartmentalizing

As an alumnus of the university who earned two degrees from the institution (including her doctorate), Natalie said she had “drunken deeply from the … Kool-Aid” and loved the work she did in her role supervising and supporting students as an Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies. With an 11-year connection to the university and an inclination to “play the game” to succeed as a tokenized Black woman, Natalie explained the meaningfulness and responsibility of being present for students.

And I’ve been performing for so long, that if somebody saw that, if somebody saw me break down, I wouldn’t be able to handle it. There are students that I’m here for that need me not to sit and talk but I need to be visible, and to me that’s what I think I offer this visibility; I’m here. I’m here.

(Natalie, personal communication, July 11, 2016)

Through her experiences of feeling tokenized, isolated, and sometimes lumped in with other Black faculty and staff, in terms of her opinions about student activism, Natalie said she believed in compartmentalizing as a way to navigate the challenges of White institutional presence. Such compartmentalizing and boundary setting manifested in physical, emotional, and intellectual ways.

In recounting her experience about the student protest, Natalie shared that she employed distance as a strategy to avoid angry parent phone calls and uncomfortable conversations with her White colleagues during the campus protests. Natalie explained:

I had to get off campus because of that environment, because of that negative energy, I just couldn’t deal with [it] personally, and I wasn’t going to try to deal with it ‘cus I also came into a bind with the escalation of the events … I also needed to keep a level head to get through the end of the year. (Natalie, personal communication, July 11, 2016)

In addition to wanting to create physical distance from the situation to avoid difficult conversations, Natalie also engaged in motional compartmentalization by choosing apathy about the racist events happening on campus. She shared a powerful revelation she had during the interview with [second author’s name] about not caring and said,

There was just so much going on, just like there’s so much going on. And I realize it doesn’t have to be that way. I could totally put all these things to the side and focus in on it, but there’s a part of me that just doesn’t care that much. I think I just realized the truth. I don’t care that much, and I can buy into something all day, I’ll wear my [school colors] and I will go out there and smile and know that I am representing a lot of different things, not just [the] University. But at the end of the day, I think I can walk away from all of this. And feel pretty good about what I’ve done. Hope, and hope that [the University] gets it together. (Natalie, personal communication, July 11, 2016)

Within this narrative, Natalie describes the complexity of indifference and refusing to let racist incidents affect her emotionally; however, later in the interview Natalie discussed how alcohol was personally helpful in surviving the situation. Through these actions, Natalie discussed the intellectual compartmentalization of idealizing care and concern for the students engaged in campus activism while also challenging it. Natalie speculated about the utility of the student protest and the meaning behind students’ involvement in a cause that, for some, seemed like a fad or an attempt to better affiliate with the Black student community.

I don’t know if they’ve actually experienced a lot of what others have experienced. So not to say that it’s not true for them, but … they could be making a lot out of, making a mountain out of a molehill. (Natalie, personal communication, July 11, 2016)

The combined themes of physical, emotional, and intellectual compartmentalizing highlight Natalie’s attempts to navigate and survive Whiteness and White institutional presence. Her narratives of experiencing the student protest as a professional with a strong identification with the institution speak to the dialect of wanting to support marginalized students on campus while attempting to simultaneously align and identify with the institution. However, Natalie simultaneously felt conflicted as a direct product (alum) of the same hegemony students were protesting at the university.

Angela: Connecting

Angela, a Housing Director at the University, described her experience of living through the student protest and subsequent conversations with her White colleagues as a time of feeling emotionally conflicted and exhausted. After learning about the student sit-in and ensuing student arrests, Angela recalled a Student Affairs division meeting. With many colleagues and administrators in the room expressing their thoughts about the chain of events, Angela said she began crying for multiple reasons: out of anger, sympathy for several other people crying in the meeting, and feeling hurt by the administration’s decision to allow the students’ arrest. I was like eh okay, I don’t wanna (sic) go back to work now. And then the department came up to me and my co-worker and tried to console us and that, it was a bunch of [them], all of them were White [and] came up to say, “I’m sorry for like”, but I just, it was like a really weird feeling. They were like, “I’m sorry for what just happened.” Almost like saying I’m sorry on behalf of like White people. (Angela, personal communication, July 7, 2016)

Within this story Angela shared both the strangeness of being consoled by White colleagues who were apologizing for Whiteness and racism, and the exhaustion she experienced commiserating with people she felt authentically expressed concern. For Angela, surviving Whiteness meant connecting with two major groups: colleagues and students. First, connecting came in the form informing colleagues, and her supervisor, about her experience as a Black staff member at the PWI. In her interview with [first author’s name], Angela read aloud an email she crafted with a co-worker and sent to her supervisor. They wrote, We ask that there be more intentional conversations around what it’s like to be Black at [the University] because we feel as if this environment can be extremely exhausting. We feel as if there have been plenty of opportunities to have discussions about what it’s like to be a Person of Color on this campus but we usually discuss this amongst ourselves to better process feelings. We feel … we have to process on our own time due to lack of concern from the department on what it’s like to be a Person of Color on this campus. In the future, intentional engagement about our experience would be helpful because we know that our Blackness is not an afterthought, especially when events like the [student protest] occurs. (Angela, personal communication, July 7, 2016)

In addition to connecting with colleagues to inform them about the importance of the situation and the necessity to open up lines of communication to learn about the experiences of marginalized communities at the university, Angela connected with students – particularly those engaged in campus activism at the time. Not only did she sit with students while they were protesting for more than a week, Angela said she gained a renewed sense of energy and vitality from talking with the protestors. She went on to share her commitment to the cause: I woulda (sic) got arrested with them. It is what it is. Like, because this issue is more important than being arrested or having something on my record, it’s like, in my mind, I don’t give a shit if I have something on my record … if it’s something that I care about and if it’s something that like I’m fighting for and I know is right. (Angela, personal communication, July 7, 2016) Through an active response to the toxic White institutional presence, Angela survived Whiteness by educating her supervisor and other colleagues about her experience and needs while also self-actualizing via involvement with student activism.

Bernard: Cultivating Communities

As an outgoing Housing Director with a strong desire to build resources to increase institutional members’ understanding and practice of social justice and inclusion, Bernard discussed how he tirelessly focused on cultivating inclusive communities at the University. Unfortunately, he explained, this work came at a cost.

There’s this formula of bringing in people who are passionate about things, usually related to social justice, diversity and inclusion, working them like a dog, burning them out, to the point where they’re doing good work, but it’s not to the point where it’s actually substantially changing culture. It’s enough to hang our hat on so we can talk about it so it looks like something is actually being done. It’s also enough so that this person can handle it on their own and get burned out, and we can absolve our self from having any part of it, and I’m talking about majority White people. (Bernard, personal communication, July 6, 2016)

Aside from the labor of doing social justice and inclusion work without tangible support, Bernard said he also grew tired of feeling representationally alone and marginalized at a PWI in which few administrative leaders recognized or mentioned the series of national affronts on Black people (i.e., police shootings and AME-Charleston 9 Shooting). “I remember being in that space not wanting to be there. And I left for about thirty minutes to go to the bathroom ‘cus I needed to collect myself, ‘cus I was not hearing anything that was being said” (Bernard, personal communication, July 6, 2016).

While feelings of isolation emerged across each of the three participants’ stories, Bernard shared his experiences during the student protest and explained how he was able to survive White institutional presence by cultivating communities. We describe this cultivation as personal community and institutional community. Personal community manifested through Bernard’s work to build relationships and seek out mentorship from faculty and other senior student affairs professionals at the University to support his own desire for belonging. Institutional community manifested through his efforts to build spaces to foster more supportive communities for students, staff, and faculty in the future beyond his tenure at the University. Although Bernard said the personal community he experienced was not intentional, it played a major role in his survival at the institution. Bernard talked about a faculty member he met: I think some of the relationships that I’ve been able to establish that have been structured have been wonderful. … Those experiences led me more to believe that I was meant to be here and that I belong – in the like sense of purpose, perception of belonging. Because I see some of those experiences as being make-or-break and the fact that God placed those people in my life and I didn’t seek them out, if that were not to be the case, I don’t know if I would still be here right now. I don’t know if I would have, although I’m very critical of [the University], I wouldn’t change this experience for the world. I don’t regret being here, I don’t know, I would not do it again.

(Bernard, personal communication, July 6, 2016)

Belonging to and working to develop communities emerged as driving forces in Bernard’s experience as a Housing Director, coping with the numerous expressions of Whiteness and White institutional presence within the institution. Bernard, Angela, and Natalie’s experiences of navigating, coping, and surviving in such a context have several meaningful implications for the higher education knowledge community.

While the professionals’ stories highlight their ability to compartmentalize, connect with students and supervisors, and cultivate community on multiple levels, institutional leaders must acknowledge, name publicly, and actively counteract White institutional presence (Gusa, 2010) at work on their campuses. For example, White ascendancy carried out by a senior student affairs professional at the University operated to arrest students for their campus activism and silence their voices as they demanded equitable treatment and resources at the institution. Though none of the three participants used the language of White monoculturalism, each participant experienced the commanding power of the dominating cultural worldview of Whiteness, which influenced how they interacted with White colleagues (e.g., smiling and playing the game) and motivated them to avoid such interactions when times became too emotionally difficult. In this case, White monoculturalism was a support to White estrangement, which reinforces a culturally imposed segregation. Natalie, Bernard, and Angela shared stories about times when they had to withdraw and avoid their certain spaces and their campus roles because they did not always feel a sense of connection, belonging, or community within the larger campus environment. Finally, the obfuscation of Whiteness was most prominent in Angela and Bernard’s narratives as Housing Directors as they observed a lack of racial-consciousness of those around them, which resulted in physical and emotional taxation and obliviousness of supervisors when handling conversations pertaining to race and racism.


While the narratives from Natalie, Bernard, and Angela provide insight into the experiences of Black, entry-level student affairs professionals navigating and surviving Whiteness and microaggressions from White people, two major limitations exist. First, the participants within this study all worked at the same institution within a similar cultural, geographical, and political context. Our analysis did not include participants from multiple PWIs across the U.S. Thus, readers must take into account their own institutional contexts as they work toward transferability of the findings. Second, because we collected the data from this study for a larger study exploring perceptions of belonging for Black faculty and staff after an incident of student activism fueled by a culmination of racist incidents, the professionals’ narratives were likely influenced by the temporal context. More specifically, the professionals in this study may have shared different stories about their strategies for coping and navigation if interviewed at a different time. However, we surmise that given the ongoing affronts against Black people on national, local, and postsecondary levels, the narratives shared remain relevant and timely given the current sociopolitical climate.

Implications for Practice and Recommendations

Considering the three participants’ abilities to compartmentalize, connect, and cultivate community speaks to a refined and well-exercised practice of resilience, which is frequently overlooked in the higher education literature though exemplary exceptions exist related to transgender and lesbian, gay, and bisexual college students’ experiences (Nicolazzo, 2016; Woodford et al., 2018). The strategies of physically, emotionally, and intellectually distancing oneself from racism and oppressive spaces, people, and practices culminate in a powerful assemblage of tools student affairs professionals of color have had to use for years. However, when taken together with combined strategies of connecting (in the form of educating supervisors), getting involved in campus activism, and cultivating personal and institutional communities of inclusion, the resources for surviving and dismantling Whiteness are immense.

That said, these strategies exist as only one side of the weighty-coin that includes institutions and key change agents that operate within and as systems to maintain oppressive power structures. Though frequent discourses position systems of oppression as faceless, nameless, and disembodied, these systems have faces, names, and people attached to them; working oftentimes covertly within. These systems and structures are in fact comprised of people who maintain an imperialist White supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 2006), which manifests in multiple ways. Such ideologies held by institutional leaders (e.g., Senior Student Affairs Officers and more) reify oppressive systems by usurping power through physical relegation (e.g., student arrests and expulsive conduct punishments). These same ideologies center Whiteness in Westernized and Eurocentric academic curriculum and cocurriculum relegating critical, embodied, and multicultural perspectives and curriculum as ancillary. Such oppressive ideologies also show up through the artificial quantification of “achievement” for monetary motives to inequitably benefit a few (e.g., college rankings and aggregated enrollment statistics) and the constant privileging of cis-heterosexual men within the upper-echelons of university leadership roles (see the American College President Study [Gagliardi, Espinosa, Turk, & Taylor, 2017]). With a greater understanding of the laborious work People of Color engage in to navigate White institutional spaces (a consideration those with racial privilege may rarely consider), post-secondary institutional leaders can develop missions, strategic plans, and resources that tangibly transform campus climates to foster more inclusive, anti-racist, and socially justice policies, practices, and pedagogies.

In much the same way we (the authors) believe the empirical literature on student sense of belonging is meaningful because of its insights on how institutions can support college students’ success and well-being, we view our research as valuable for faculty and staff – the engine of the academy, particularly, Black faculty and staff. Our research is significant for three major groups: university leadership who possess the power to create campus climates that attract, retain, and build up staff and faculty, researchers dedicated to understanding the experiences of faculty and staff of color who can use and add details to the developed theory of faculty and staff belonging to expand the discourse, and faculty and staff of color in search of strategies to mobilize and use collective action to make their campuses more equitable and inclusive. The insights gained from this study are rendered more significant when historical and intersectional lenses are applied to critique pre-existing institutions and systems that act in oppressive ways contrary to their missions and visions.

In the interim, campus leaders can work to eliminate the experiences of isolation, tokenization, and discrimination of Black, entry-level student affairs professionals (and all racially marginalized professionals on campus) experience by listening to the stories of Natalie, Bernard, and Angela and working pre-emptively to address issues of racism on campus. Such work can happen on individual, institutional, and ideological levels. First, leaders can begin to dismantle White institutional presence within colleges and universities by reflecting on their own behaviors, communication, and policies and ask the following questions: Have I taken time to learn the experiences of those who are marginalized and minoritized at my institution? What are their experiences? How has my thinking and behavior (or lack of action) influenced these experiences? What can I do to prevent inequitable treatment of marginalized communities at the institution? What can I do to foster inclusion, equity, and justice for marginalized communities at the institution? These reflective questions can spur opportunities to further self-awareness while promoting listening behaviors crucial to learning the experiences of another.

On an institutional level, leaders can nurture spaces for marginalized communities to share their experiences, concerns, and needs while genuinely considering expressed viewpoints. Further, leaders can critically examine the spaces on campus. The following questions support change on an institutional level. What culturally based organizations exist for staff to be in community around shared identities? Which groups need additional financial support, encouragement, or resources (e.g., places to meet)? How does the volume and quality of resources to support dominant identity groups compare to the resources allocated for minoritized groups? How am I communicating a value to support and nurture spaces for affinity groups? Where are the physical and conceptual spaces (e.g., units, departments, colleges) on campus that pose barriers for marginalized communities at the institution?

Finally, and likely the most challenging level, leaders can dismantle White institutional presence and racism on an ideological level by challenging monocultural thinking, decentering Whiteness, and acknowledging racism. Institutional leaders can ask the following questions: Do the institution’s values communicate and reflect pluralism in ways of knowing and value systems (e.g., collectivism, communities of practice, codependence, shared governance, etc.)? Does the curriculum (at multiple levels) include diverse pedagogies, texts/authors, and practices? How does the institution reward such efforts, if at all? How does the institution work to acknowledge its racist past and current inequitable practices that impact students, faculty, and staff?


Although the outlined areas of strategies for institutional leaders mirror myriad scholarly calls for the dismantling of oppressive systems in the academy, these suggestions are connected to the real stories of three student affairs professionals who feel oppression in concrete ways each day in their roles on predominantly White campuses. Institutional leaders know and understand the importance of engaging in such work; however, not all are willing to answer the call for fear of risks to their status, power, and authority. We hope that through our research more leaders will feel compelled to take a risk and begin with themselves. For the Black professionals engaging in work on college campuses, we hope our discussion of the strategies of connection, compartmentalization, and community offer some support though we know these tools are not a panacea for a long legacy of oppression.


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