When I Am the Only One

Today I participated in a luncheon and open discussion with roughly twenty students, two female faculty members, and a visiting artist of color, about being a minority at a predominately white institution. Growing up in the south, I was privileged to attend a predominately black elementary and high school. Acceptance and understanding was never an issue for me. I was also fortunate to be raised by a family that embraced all people and believed in exposing it’s children to everything the world had to offer. That being said, when I chose to attend Syracuse University, I never felt out of place, unwelcome, or unprivileged to the education that I was (and still am) paying for. When I attended SVA I again felt like I belonged, that I worked hard to be where I was and that I had every right to the education that others were there to receive. For a time there was one other African American female student in the program with me. It wasn’t until my second year that I became the only one. By then, my peers and I had already become a sort of family and supported each others’ creative agenda. When I began working in a predominantly white environment in publishing, my ethnicity was never directly challenged, though there were a few times that I was reminded that most people I worked around didn’t think like me or come from similar experiences.

It wasn’t until recently that I began to become aware of myself as a black woman in an authoritative role at an institution where some may have never encountered a person of color similarly. The question then becomes, what to do about it?

My job is to teach illustration, which is what I am doing. My job is to teach people how to become productive professionals and thinking artists, which is what I do. Is it my job also to have conversations about race in the arts and in America? I think somewhat, yes. I just haven’t figured out how to do that in the most useful way yet.

The most surprising side effect of teaching for me has been the feeling that I have something to prove to my students. Part of it has been stigma related to being a new teacher, but also being aware that I am black and that America has a long complicated history with that idea. As much as I like to put it aside, I am reminded periodically. I often question the need for discussions like the one had today, but once I am in a room with women who look like me and who have similar experiences of being of color in a euro-centric environment, it is very evident that yes, we need to see each other, connect, support and share in order to become stronger and more confident in navigating this world.

I am still forming and answering questions for myself about my usefulness on campus for all of my students, first artistically, but also when it directly relates to race. I have never been comfortable asserting any black agenda when it comes to myself as an artist. That isn’t my goal, and for what do as an illustrator, isn’t of the most use to me. I am a storyteller who is a woman who is black. The sum of my experiences, which is extremely diverse, is what I put into the art. I think the same goes for my teaching.

I look forward to continuing this discussion throughout my career as a teaching illustrator. Many thanks to the Office of Diversity for organizing today’s discussion.

Lastly, I could do without being told how articulate I am in student evaluations, thank you very much.