As an education speaker, I speak to a wide array of audiences regularly. Because I have spoken to such a variety of audiences all over the U.S. and different parts of the world, I am very comfortable speaking to all audience compositions, which include when I am the only African American in the room (which is often). As a speaker, I would argue that one must strive to feel comfortable with all audiences if one is going to experience longevity in the world of speaking.
Countless times in my capacity of speaker, I have been the only African American not only in the auditorium, gym, library, cafeteria, classroom, ballroom or meeting room, but I have been the only African American in the entire building when you consider the support staff who are in the building who are not a part of my presentation. In this context, there is this one engagement that will always stand out for me that has probably crossed my mind at least once per day over the past year since it occurred. I was in a state that shall remain nameless where the African American population is rather small with a rather large white majority. I was invited to speak to the entire school district staff at their day long professional development conference via a morning opening keynote and an afternoon closing keynote.
When my contact person invited me, he informed me that the district had no African American educators but that they did have a small percentage of African American students. Since this was not going to be an uncommon experience, my response to him was a simple, “no problem at all…I’ll be ready.” On many occasions when I am the only African American in the room, it is quite normal for me to address the “elephant in the room” early on by making a light joke of the fact that “I guess I’m the only African American in sight,” because the “elephant” is so obvious and blatant in those situations, though not uncomfortable for me at all. After all, I’m a speaker and speakers speak to people…all people.
As I walked into that gym that morning full of educators, I felt a different vibe from my norm. I am accustomed to being spoken to by somebody…anybody. I was alone that morning. No one acknowledged my presence. People walked past me as if I wasn’t in the room. I knew I stood out not only because I am an African American but because I was that one unfamiliar face in the building. I truly felt alone, isolated and invisible in that moment…and I was the keynote speaker. That meant I had some “heavy lifting” to do that day for sure. Consequently, due to the "vibe" in the room, I even refrained from resorting to my normal joke about being the only African American in sight. I didn't think it would fly in this setting.
The morning keynote went well. I don’t mean it produced “amens” throughout my presentation…lol…but I thought it was productive. As I engaged in my normal self-reflection and self-assessment during my down time, I concluded that the presentation went over well. But it’s that afternoon keynote that motivated me to write this blog post a year later. I walked back into that gym while everyone else was filing in and thought that now that everyone heard me in the morning and was now familiar with me, they would open up to me….not hardly! Again, it was like I wasn’t even in the room. It was as if I hadn’t spoken to this same audience just a few short hours ago. I was invisible! When I was being introduced to come up and deliver my final presentation, I said to myself, “Here we go again….you got this…let’s do this!” As I took the microphone from the introducer, I stood on the half court line of the gym directly in front of a little over 500 faces, all white, with mine as the lone African American face in the room and the first words that came out of my mouth were, “Are there any questions, comments, feedback or concerns about anything I said during this morning’s keynote address?” Whenever there is a break in my presentations with the same audience, I will ask this question 100% of the time before we resume the discussion. Immediately, a woman enthusiastically raised her hand which relieved me. Her hand going up so quickly made me feel that on the one hand, she was engaged in the morning session, and on the other hand, I anticipated that there were probably many more questions to come from others. My thinking in that moment was, “Great…this is going to be an awesome afternoon!” But then she proceeded to ask me a question that literally blew me away. She said, “Have you ever spoken to an audience as white as this one?” Immediately, many in the room began to laugh. I just stood there and looked at my audience. I didn’t say anything…not a word. I just took it all in. I wondered though was the organizer of the event (or the person who introduced me) going to take the mic from me and address this awkward turn of events….it didn’t happen. I wondered if maybe one of the educators in the audience was going to stand up and condemn what just occurred….it didn’t happen.
Time froze for me momentarily. I was deep into my own thoughts in front of a live audience of educators as an African American man…an African American speaker…who now felt completely detached and disconnected from his audience. All sorts of history popped into my head regarding the Black male experience in America. The recurring theme in my thinking though was this feeling of isolation. I thought to myself, “So what you are an internationally renowned and respected speaker, author and educator…that’s not what you are in THIS room in THIS moment.” More importantly though, I thought about that small percentage of African American children who are enrolled in the schools where the members of this audience teach and undoubtedly have their own testimonies of isolation and invisibility (my high school story for another time). Or those African Americans who work in the lonely world of Corporate America for example, and the ongoing feelings of isolation and invisibility that many of them endure (my story too for another time). Time was truly frozen in that moment. The reality though was that I felt compelled…obligated to address what had just occurred on behalf of the African American children that they service.
As I made my way out of my momentary silence and back to my present reality with 500+ educators awaiting my response, the first words out of my mouth were, “Yes, I speak to audiences as white as this one regularly. White teachers across America comprise over 80% of the total teaching force while African American teachers are about 6 to 7%. Since I do about 200 presentations per year, I talk to a whole lot of all white audiences regularly.” I proceeded to ask her why she felt so comfortable asking me this question in this forum, particularly when I was seeking questions and feedback related to my morning presentation. Instead of answering the question, she apologized to me repeatedly. I decided that I would not spend my hour addressing my topic of student and staff attitudes but instead, I would turn my presentation into a teachable moment and talk about the repercussions for African American children when they feel isolated and invisible in white majority classrooms and schools, which would include a discussion on cultural responsiveness, cultural relevance, equity and some of the realities of being an African American male / African American man in America for the next hour. Ironically, this experience was one of those realities.
Between this teacher and the many who found her question funny, I truly believe they didn’t see the wrong and the hurt in their behavior…a clear example of “unconscious bias.” To them, it was probably quite normal and business as usual. In other words, my feelings weren’t considered until I opened my mouth and addressed them to an extremely captive audience. When the day finally ended, many in that audience, led by the woman who raised the question marched right over to me to apologize. Several were crying including the woman in question. Many had long explanations with their apologies and expressed feeling badly about the situation.
As I close, this essay is actually not about me nor my presentation. I’m a “big boy” and I will be fine. This essay is all about African American children. As educators, we must all and we must always “check ourselves” toward ensuring that we leave whatever biases that we may possess at home. Our children cannot and must not be subjected to them. When they are, we run the risk undermining their efforts toward truly maximizing their own potential to be amazing young people and eventually amazing adults.
For further writings by Principal Kafele, visit PrincipalKafele.com